Today my son was named a Shining Star aka Student of the Month at his school. I imagine this would be a pretty huge deal for any parent, but as a special needs mom, I am downright ELATED. I worry about him just making it through the daily routine, so to see him accomplish and achieve anything beyond that is extra exciting. Fourth grade is turning out to be the best school year yet, and I attribute much of Haiden’s success to his teacher.
Haiden has been at the same school since kindergarten. He has had an IEP in place every year, and for the most part the faculty has been very accepting and accommodating of his quirky personality. His teachers have been fantastic every year. In kindergarten it was sweet Ms. R. Her name was Rescorla but this was a bit of a tongue twister for the kids so she went by Ms. R. I was finishing my BA when he started and I desperately wanted him to get a coveted spot in the full-day class. In retrospect it was better for him to start only half days. He was still in phases of frequent, frantic outbursts and meltdowns. He spent a lot of time on Ms. R’s lap. She was great at keeping me updated of his progress.
In first grade he had the cutest, nicest teacher, Mrs. Steed. She always had so much patience with him. We worked out a system of keeping track of his behavior. She printed strips of paper that had a row of smiley faces and sad faces. When he did what he was supposed to do he earned the happy faces. If he acted out he would earn a sad face. We thought this was a great plan until he had an epic meltdown the first time she colored in a sad face. Realizing his fragile psyche couldn’t tolerate this negative reinforcement, she immediately changed the tactic. She made all the faces happy and he had daily goals to achieve a certain number. She was awesome.
In second grade he had Mrs. Solipo. Man, all I can say is second grade was a rough year for him. At one point in time he got suspended for threatening another student with a pencil. Ay ay ay. But we worked tirelessly to improve behavior issues. Mrs. Solipo researched and found articles and tried many many things with him. She became like another mom to him, and he adored her. Still does! She has become a true friend and someone I can talk to about any worries and concerns. I feel like she always has Haiden’s back.
And then there was third grade. Mr. Mean. I mean Mr. Mann. When we met him at back-to-school night, lots of red flags popped up. First, Haiden has always loved having female teachers. This dry, wispy, monotone man couldn’t have been further from the sweet, nurturing teachers he had had previously. On the rare occasions I had to interact with him, his voice put ME to sleep and he expected a room of 8-year-olds to stay engaged??
I had assumed he had been informed that he had a special needs ASD kid in class and that he was adequately prepared to deal with this type of student. It became glaringly clear by the end of the first week of school that that was not the case. I received a call from the principal letting me know there had been an “incident.” There was a fire drill– fire drills freak Haiden out, even if he knows they’re coming. He started panicking and yelling. Mr. Mann expected him to just fall in line with the other kids and when he didn’t, he grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him out of the class. In Haiden’s words: “He grabbed me so tight I felt like he was pulling my muscles off the bones.”
I picked Haiden up from school that Friday with the sickest feeling in the pit of my stomach. I started searching for other options. We checked out a Montessori school– too expensive. I called all the local charter schools– they were full. I even looked into homeschooling– it just wasn’t feasible. So we decided to do something we have avoided doing all these years: put him on meds.
His pediatrician called in a prescription for Risperdal, which is an anti-psychotic drug. I picked it up from the pharmacy and dove into the fine print of all the side effects. In one paragraph it stated that it could lead to Tardive Dyskinesia, a disorder resulting in involuntary, repetitive body movements. In this form of dyskinesia, the involuntary movements are tardive, meaning they have a slow or belated onset. It most frequently occurs as the result of long-term or high-dose use of anti-psychotic drugs. When I read that my blood went cold. I turned to my husband and told him we weren’t going to do it. When I told him why, he firmly agreed. His mother struggled with, and ultimately died from, this ugly disorder.
So I gritted my teeth, swallowed the lump of guilt in my throat, and continued to take Haiden to Mr. Mann’s class. Third grade was rough for both of us. I went from being pretty active in his classroom to avoiding it altogether. Teacher appreciation? Fuggetaboutit. I printed some scholarly articles for him, highlighting some of Haiden’s behaviors and ways to handle it. Mr. Mann never read it. His method of measuring my son’s progress was a behavioral chart he would fill out every day. For each subject there was Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor. According to that man, my son was poor in math every day. I learned to take it with a grain of salt and consider the source. It wasn’t that my son wasn’t doing well, it was that his teacher wasn’t.
The silver lining is that these events led to us getting him occupational and behavioral therapy. His official diagnosis at that time was ASD, ADHD and unspecified anxiety disorder. The poor kid was/is trying to balance A LOT of shit in that beautiful mind of his. And without meds. I cringe at the thought if we had started the Risperdal. I hated the idea that these chemicals would alter the inherent make up of my son. Sometimes he can be a weirdo, but he is my funny, sweet, smart, super cute weirdo!
And then TODAY happens. My son was chosen as Student of the Month. When his teacher called his name I think he was surprised and pleased. She said the kindest things about him, and the best part was we could tell she meant it. From the first time we met her, all of my angst from third grade was put to rest. She is like an ASD angel sent from heaven just for Haiden. She takes such great care of him. It’s such a relief to have that weight of worry lifted off of me this year. A couple months ago I had to come chat with her about Haiden’s use of some grown-up words. I walked into the school ready to ground Haiden from Minecraft for life. Mrs. Hunsaker was so kind about everything that I left the meeting feeling proud of my kid. (Not for saying naughty words, but for other things.)
My heart is bursting today. Some days I’ve had heartbreak over this kid, and I’m sure I will in the future. But today my heart is happy. Now I just want a “My kid got Student of the Month” bumper sticker to commemorate it.