It’s May, 2014.
We are sitting in Lewis’ kindergarten transition IEP meeting. As a team we are reviewing every service and service delivery to make sure it fits right for Lewis as he leaves preschool. It’s not my first rodeo and I have plenty of anxiety over the whole transition process based on past experience. Lewis’ incredible preschool teacher and team know this – and know Lewis – and we discuss every detail to make sure we are all on board and understand how kindergarten will look for him for the new school year.
We discuss his social skills programming, his need for visual and written cues when transitioning, his extended school year plan, and all the supports he will need for success.
“So now let’s talk transportation,” says his teacher.
I sit up straight in my chair, stiffening a little.
“I know this is something that we’ve talked about in the past. But we don’t really feel like he needs specialized transportation. I really think he will be okay on the big bus.” His teacher stops talking for a moment. “Um, you don’t agree?”
Tim elbows me.
“You’re pulling on your sleeves,” he says.
That’s my “tell”. My sign that I’m having an anxiety attack.
“It’s not that I don’t think he can’t be on the big bus. It’s just that…” I take a breath.
“It’s just that I don’t know how I’m going to manage all three kids getting to school at different times with different modes of transportation.”
This morning I sent a message to my friend Jess.
“I’ve officially lost my ability to write,” I texted. “I’m trying to write about how Lewis taking the bus and me driving Howie is an example of not just our acceptance of what each kid needs but an understanding of those needs….None of the kids asked why one was going to school one way and one another…we’ve taught them that everyone is different with no stigmas attached. But the words aren’t coming without sounding stupid…”
And she gave me brilliant advice like she always does: “Start in the middle. Where the feelings are. Don’t try to start at the beginning.”
Where the feelings are.
So here goes.
A long time ago, that meeting would have made me sad.
The big bus would have seemed like “The Holy Grail” of transportation. Going to school the way most kids do. Getting that big “first day of school” bus picture. I would have looked at it as one of my kids can ride the bus and one of them…can’t. My anxiety in that meeting would have focused on their disabilities in the negative, the kind of deficit model of looking at challenges and accommodations as a something bad and temporary with the hopes that maybe someday things will get better. I would have focused on the fact that I had one kid whose challenges kept him off the big bus, while both his big brother and little brother were able to ride it.
But here’s the thing. I’m not that me anymore.
Last school year, we took Howie off of the mini bus. He had been riding the mini-bus since kindergarten to and from school and it’s written into his IEP that he needs specialized transportation. But for second grade, I started driving him to school and he would taking the mini bus home. He needed a “sensory overload free” way to enter school in order to start his day off right. He didn’t want to talk to anyone or have anyone talk to him. About halfway through the year, that need for a sensory overload free trip became evident for the ride home as well. He would be able to use his calming tools to get through the school day, but have a very difficult time with that on the way home.
Once I began driving him both ways, his stress level leaving the house and coming home lessened greatly, spilling over to a better day at school and at home in the afternoon.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t take the mini bus. Or even the big bus.
It was that both of those choices weren’t right for him. For his success – academically and emotionally – he needed me to drive. This accommodation was no different than any of the other supports listed in his IEP.
Two kids – two brothers – with the same autism diagnosis. Needing two completely different accommodations.
But changing the question from “Can my kids do something” to asking “what is appropriate for them” – it made all the difference.
“So what do you think? Do you think Lewis can take the bus to kindergarten?”
All eyes of the team are on me.
“I know that with a lot of prep he can. I think we should give it a try,” I say.
“Are you worried that Howie will be upset or jealous that Lewis is on the big bus?”
I smile. “No, actually, I’m more worried that Lewis will wonder why he doesn’t ride with Mom to school.” I say. “But he will know that’s just how he gets to kindergarten. And Howie will know that too.“
“It’s the logistics that make me nervous. Gerry’s bus to the junior high comes at one time, the elementary school bus at another. And somewhere in there I need to drive Howie to the elementary school too. But we will figure it out. We always do.”
I shift in my seat, pulling at my sleeves.
“Can we talk again about the fact that my last kid is leaving this amazing preschool for kindergarten? I’m not so sure how I feel about that…”
We talk a lot in our house about fair not meaning equal. My kids have seen the cartoon of three characters of all different heights looking over a fence. They each have different sized boxes to stand on so they can see over the fence line. They aren’t equal sized boxes. Each character needed something different to get them to the same place.
We’ve never said “I hope someday you can take the big bus to school.”
In our town, some kids walk. Some arrive in cars. Some take the big bus. Some take the mini bus.
There’s no better or worse way to get to school. For my boys, there’s no stigma attached to any mode of transportation.
My three kids need something different to get them to school.
For one, it’s mom’s car.
For the other two, it’s the wheels on the bus.
All through the town.