Tonight was Back to School night for my son’s preschool. As I walked up the steps into the big brick building with all the other parents, a weird feeling came over me. A little bit of nerves, a little bit of sadness, plus a little bit of something else that I couldn’t quite place.

Until I remembered. This is where it all started. Exactly one year ago. This was the night when I realized that my son needed help.

Tonight I walked past the classroom he was in last year and glanced in as the parents were taking their seats in the little blue and red chairs arranged on the circle time mat. One year ago, that was me. The “Me” with the lump in my throat. The “Me” that spent every preschool morning arguing and yelling because my son wouldn’t put his shoes on. The “Me” that dragged him out of school kicking and screaming because playground time was over. The “Me” that hadn’t slept more than 3 hours straight in 3 years. The “Me” that just couldn’t figure out what was going on with my kid.

I stopped for a moment in the hallway and closed my eyes. I remember that evening so well. I remember barely listening to his teacher discuss the preschool curriculum because I was still stuck on how terrible his day at school had been. I remember half-listening to her story about how the kids had table time, and that one kid (no name given) kept taking other kids’ name tags off the tables and putting his own there because he wanted to play with the trains and only the trains. I remember knowing in my gut that was Howie, and while the other parents laughed at the anecdote, it made me want to cry.

I remember asking the aides in the classroom how things were going for Howie, and their response was “ask the teacher.” I remember staying late after everyone was gone and talking at length with his teacher about his transition issues, his meltdowns and his difficult behavior in the classroom. She told me that the general accommodations in the classroom weren’t working for Howie anymore. And I remember this incredibly smart and astute teacher telling me – without words – that we needed to get Howie evaluated by a professional.

And I remember crying the “ugly cry” the whole ride home from that Back to School night one year ago, knowing in my heart that she was right but not knowing what it all meant or even what to do next.

That night set in motion a chain of events that would change our family forever. There was the initial appointment with our pediatrician who told us that she didn’t think Howie was on the spectrum, but that he had some “spectrum-like tendencies”. There was the speech/language assessment and the hearing test to rule out anything physical as the reason why Howie couldn’t process two-step directions. There was the piles of paperwork as we tried to get him on every wait list possible for an evaluation, and the call three months later for a appointment with a developmental pediatrician. Then the diagnosis that we expected but still didn’t understand – autism spectrum disorder.

From there, much is a blur. The diagnosis allowed us to reconvene our special education team and develop Howie’s IEP. He was assigned ABA techs to work with him one-on-one in and out of the classroom. He had OT visits, social speech groups, and home visits. The school tailor made a program to fit his needs. I got PECS cards, visual schedules, and daily log sheets of his activities. I learned words like “stimming”, “perseverate”, and “sensory diet”. We gave Howie our undivided attention and divided our attention with our other two boys. We bought books, weighted blankets and therapy equipment. We learned behavior modification techniques and used phrases like “red choices” and “green choices”. We worked closely with the amazing school staff and that incredible teacher to do whatever we could to give Howie a chance at loving school and succeeding in life.

And…

What a difference a year makes.

I walked into his new full day inclusion classroom tonight with a smile on my face. My husband and I had met with his teachers last week and I already knew things were going well. He has two incredible ABA techs that really understand him. They are giving him the choice of starting his day in the OT room to help “get the wiggles out”.

Let me say that again – they are giving HIM the choice. Which means he has reached a point in one year where he is able to verbalize his sensory needs. My little guy, who one year ago couldn’t leave school without a total and complete meltdown, now understands his body enough to know what he needs. My little guy, who one year ago couldn’t lose a game or draw a picture without a complete on-the-floor tantrum, is now running races on the playground and bringing home pictures that he wants hung up in my husband’s office. Of course, this is all with his amazing teachers by his side, cheering him on. But still…after this incredibly hard year, filled with anxiety and confusion and tears and difficult work…maybe we’re finally getting somewhere. Maybe we’re finally understanding our son.

I sat through the entire curriculum presentation tonight feeling – for the first time in a year – that my son could do it. I looked around at the walls and he actually had artwork up for display. Every one of his teachers came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed having him in class. Every one of them told me how amazed they were at how well his was doing and what a difference it was, even from just summer school. One of his techs actually told me that Howie’s “the reason I love my job.”

What a difference a year makes.

And now, maybe there’s hope for kindergarten back to school night next year.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
-Seasons of Love from RENT

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life
?”

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