Throughout my time spent in school, one way or another, there was always some problem at hand that needed to be dealt with when it came to me. Whether the problem was that I couldn’t make it through the school day without needing to come home due to overstimulation or my behavior was disruptive in a classroom setting. In any case, I had no shortage of “quirks” that needed to go away.
The fifth grade at St.Clare’s Catholic Elementary was the toughest years of all my years. It is an age where all other children have learned how to socialize, friendships have been formed, best friends have been made and people begin to form groups of friends and splinter off into sub-groups. Not me. I was a party of one.
But I was different, really different. I was nine years old and had experienced a complete mental breakdown and hospitalized in a children’s psychiatric hospital. This is when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s. I was fortunate as the doctor who was overseeing the wing the night I was admitted was an expert in Asperger’s and recognized the signs as spectrum and not merely a mental disorder. More about that experience another time. Upon being discharge, I was homeschooled for a while after until I could get my emotions in check and get used to the medication that left my senses dull. To be honest, there was little schooling. There were long days of soft sobbing, rocking, rubbing and feeling sad. I was deeply sad. But over many months and lots of baby steps forcing me outside of my comfort zone on even the simplest mundane tasks, there reached a point where my mother was determined it was time for me to return to school. She was encouraged by doctors to send me to a “special school” but instead, she let me be “special” in a nice school. She had chosen a small Catholic School near our home. The classrooms were smaller, the kids compassionate and the teachers were willing to take on the challenge, “for the love of God.” I’m sure I tested that love on more than one occasion!
Prior to being hospitalized, I was in a school where I was bullied and picked on for being different. My behaviors were odd and off-putting. My socialization skills were equivalent to owning an exotic pet. There are better seen through glass than handled and played with. In short, my experience with school didn’t leave me feeling comfortable and having had a complete Chernobyl-sized breakdown, I wasn’t exactly in top form to be starting a new school, but my mother insisted. It wasn’t what was easy, it was what was best. She always pushed me close enough to the edge to see over the cliff while knowing where to stop before pushing me over. This became a way of life for me that changed my life. I suppose its like people who get over their fear of heights by jumping from a plane. No thanks. I would rather have Asperger’s!
Upon my arrival I was assigned two “buddies” to help my adjustment into the classroom setting. Being surrounded by people was overwhelming. It didn’t take much for me to become overstimulated. This caused meltdowns, many meltdowns. At first, I would be sent to the office where my mother would receive a phone call to pick me up. At first she would allow me to stay home. After a couple of times of this she would allow me to calm down and put me back in the car and finish the day. Then we worked out way up to a phone call would send her to the school where she would meet me in the library in a quiet corner, get me calm and send me to class. Eventually, Mom had an entire uninterrupted 8 hours added to her day. Baby steps became the key to overcoming my greatest obstacles.
This approach worked. I began to assimilate and even made a friend, Maddy. She was kind and patient, but most importantly she didn’t judge me which helped me feel more comfortable just being me, which was quirky. The school year was difficult but I survived and had already begun to make huge social and emotional strides. Two months before the end of the year, my parents had made the decision to move to Wisconsin. This was big for me. My father had accepted a job and had already moved there to work. My mother and I stayed behind to finish the school year and prepare for the move. The last week of school, with the house partially packed as we readied to move, my mom went into heart failure and was hospitalized. She’s fine now, but it was a difficult time with lots of changes. A few weeks later we made the move and we had the summer to get my mother healthy and to get prepared for a new school, again.
There was a similar process and situation in middle school. My mother asked the school to assign “buddies” to help me adjust and cope with the change. This was another small Catholic school which my parents allowed me to choose after finding a few that felt like the previous school. It is interesting to note that we aren’t Catholic. In fact, my father was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school and swore after his experience, “he would never send his kid to a Catholic school.” Well, he changed his views on that. These small schools offered me the size, compassion and flexibility I needed. My mother spoke with the teachers, principal and counselor with full disclosure. They needed to know what they were in for. They agreed to go along for the ride. She outlined my challenges and areas where I struggled the most. The school offered me an IEP which would allow me to have extra time on tests or take it outside of the classroom, leave the classroom if the stimulation became too much, not participate in activities deemed “stressful” that were required of all other students, etc. In short, they were willing to allow me to get away with not having to do anything that stressed me or I wouldn’t like. That is like a “Get out of Jail FREE” card for a habitual criminal. My mother wouldn’t have it. Instead, smaller concessions were made. I was to participate to the fullest of my ability in all things. If there was an oral speech which had to be given, I could have been given a pass. Instead, I was allowed a small audience the first time as a warm up to the subsequent times being just like everyone else. That was the key. I needed to ease into doing the same things as everyone else. I knew that if I wanted to go to college and get a job someday, I would have to learn how to get work done without special accommodations. My mother always said that I needed to adjust to the world because it wasn’t going to adjust to me. It was through my refusal of the special accommodations that allowed me to eventually be able to function well in a classroom setting without using an IEP. In fact, there were many things which I could have escaped participating in because someone else thought they were stressful. Public speaking is one of them an is something I not only enjoy but am good with. I would have never known this had I not been “accommodated.” Accommodations aren’t always in someone’s best interest. It might actually cause you to be even more “quirky.”