April 26, 2011

Toto, We're Not in Elementary School Anymore...The Special Needs Adolescent Student Edition

Autism Awareness Month is drawing to a close, and I felt that I just had to put some serious information out here.

I read many blogs each day about the adventures, struggles and successes of young children with autism. I read very few about adolescents - this age group is under-represented in blogdom.

Strides have been made in special education for our children - young children are receiving therapy that improves their chances of success in preschool and elementary school. Most of your stories talk of therapies that were not available when my son was going through his difficulties. It all sounds so...nice and organized.

I'm envious, I admit.

But as the mother of an almost 16-year old son with Asperger's and bipolar disorder, things have not been quite so easy. And the most difficult transition The Boy has made so far was when he went from elementary school to middle school.

I had visions of writing a post so horrific that special needs parents of elementary children would vomit vigorously and then be found lying on the bathroom floor in a fetal position.

I decided against the ultra-frightening version. The following information may be upsetting to you, but I didn't write it to freak you out - I wrote it to get you thinking about your child's educational future.

Entering middle school or high school is scary, folks. Even for "normal" kids, it can be traumatic. For The Boy, it was horrendous.

But then I thought it would be better to just provide some tips to help you and your child navigate secondary education in these here United States.

Let's take your average middle school. It's usually much larger than elementary school. Students change classes every every class period. Your student will come in contact with seven or eight new teachers (if they are in an inclusion program). 

The really challenging kids are pretty well known in elementary school. I can't tell you how many children have said "hi" to The Boy in our travels to local businesses; even teachers from other grades knew him by name. Parents who volunteered in classes knew him, too.

And it wasn't in that "oh, it's Justin Beiber! Can we have your autograph?" kind of way. His reputation for being a challenging, but funny, child made him a pseudo-celebrity in elementary school.

In elementary school, one of The Boy's classmates in second grade, a lovely little girl, said "I don't care what he does - I still like him!"

That won't ever be said in the upper grades.

In middle school, your child will meet many new students, often from other neighboring schools. They don't know your child - all they see is someone who is "different". And by "different", I don't mean "exciting, sexy, boy, I'd like to get to know him/her". 

Your child might be called unkind names:


And I know, you've probably told your kid for years not to use these derogatory labels, because they are not kind. Before your child gets to middle school, tell them about people who are ignorant about behavioral and emotional challenges. Arm them with information, warn them about the name-calling; help them develop thick skins.

Nobody thinks it's cool when a middle school student starts to cry when they're teased or bullied. Prepare them for the verbal assaults. Kids can be so mean, and teachers just want the student to "man up".

I know that your child may have special interests. If they are in the least bit juvenile, make them leave the Kermit backpack at home. Don't advertise their quirkiness in the sea of students who just want to fit in. Don't unwittingly set them up to be a target of ridicule.

The hallways in middle school are loud and crowded. If your child has sensory issues regarding noise or being jostled by passing students, see if you can hook them up with an aide, and see if arrangements can be made for them to change classes a minute or two before the thundering herds come into the halls.

The class bell is LOUD. The cafeteria is deafening. And lunch lines are long, and there's not a lot of time to eat. Plan ahead. Maybe your child can pack a lunch. Maybe waiting in lines is not a positive experience for your child.

The classroom aides (if your school district is fortunate enough to employ enough of them) are different than the elementary aides. They aren't touchy/feely friendly types; they are businesslike, and just want to get through the day without any issues. If your kid is really disorganized or dawdles, work with them to streamline their movements. If you have four minutes to get from one class to the next, you can't be dawdling. Don't let them fill their backpack with tons of their favorite things.

The "experts" recommend that you and your child visit the school before the new school year starts. Good luck with that. I've met with nothing but resistance, and reminders that "contract employees are not required to be at school until the first day". Sweet.

Many schools do not have the final class schedule ready before the first day of class. There's mass confusion about omissions and corrections to student schedules.

Many of your child's teachers have little knowledge about special needs. They wouldn't know an IEP if it hit them in the head. Don't expect them to be conversant about accommodations for your child. They have hundreds of students to teach in a given day - they may view you as an interfering 'helicopter parent'.

The best way around this is to have your Special Services person be your single point of contact. Don't call them daily with demands. Type up a list of accommodations that are already in the IEP as a reminder to them. After about a month, request another IEP meeting if things aren't going very well.

I'm assuming that you make it a month - The Boy didn't make it an entire week before disaster struck. He was arrested in the 6th grade, and involuntarily committed to a state mental facility for three months.

He was also suspended from school for 45 days, and asked not to return. He went to an alternative placement after he was discharged from the hospital.

Also, there are a couple of very important terms you need to be familiar with...

Zero tolerance policy. The administrators in middle school and high school mean.it. Behavioral anomalies that are tolerated in elementary school will NOT be tolerated in the upper grades.

Does your child make threats when frightened? Do what you can to get them to stop. In middle school and high school, threats of any kind are taken very seriously - and could result in suspension, expulsion or arrest (or a combination thereof).

Has your child ever run from the building? Elopement can result in the same serious consequences. Trust me on this.

Check out the district policy on restraint and seclusion. The Boy ended up with a large bruise around his neck from a teacher restraining him improperly by tugging on his t-shirt. Know what the policy is regarding the involvement of law enforcement personnel, if your child is totally out of control. 

Nobody wants to see their child in a juvenile detention jumpsuit, wrist and leg shackles doing the "perp shuffle" (because they've removed his shoe laces). Trust me on this, too.

Maybe we just had the misfortune of picking two lousy districts in two separate states. Maybe your school district has loving, knowledgeable teachers and unlimited funding for special education.

I certainly hope that is the case. As the incidence of autism continues to increase, I am cautiously optimistic that schools of all levels will evolve into places of acceptance and excellence, for all of our children.

If my rosy outlook isn't yet a reality, I suggest that you make your child's fifth grade year the year that YOU go back to school, and find out what you can about the middle school your child will be attending.

Be prepared. I'd hate for your children (and YOU, too) to have the exact same experiences we've had.

I hope I haven't frightened you too much. Forewarned is forearmed. 


  1. This is valuable information, sad but true. My heart goes out to you. It is too bad that all teachers are not trained, but again, you are spot on. Peace to you and the boy.

  2. JFC, brilliant post! I feel unbelievably fortunate right now...but a wee bit leery about the change to middle school in a few years!

  3. That was great information. And I know how hard you have worked to get your son where he is today. You are one great mother.

  4. OMG,OMG,OMG....I've never thought of these things as my son is 7 and this is so clearly your experience. I don't know how to thank you--that you took what was ishy for you and turned it aournd to help others like me. Thank you for your insights and sharing what you went through (and I'm sure that's not the half of it)so I am armed with what I need to help my son.

    A thousand thanks.


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