What Might Be Possible

by Carolyn D.
November 2012

“When my son, Joaquin, was first diagnosed with autism, he was attending a family day care center. The woman who ran the center was just beginning to feel overwhelmed by my son’s issues. At the time, Joaquin was two years old and the symptoms that would later make placement difficult were beginning to emerge: Joaquin is non-verbal, not potty trained, a skilled escape artist with no sense of danger, prone to temper tantrums and enjoys playing with his bowel movements. It became immediately clear that we needed to find a new placement. We felt lucky when Joaquin was immediately accepted into an established, well-respected, special needs child development center in downtown SF that billed itself as: “an oasis in the downtown area where young children experience a safe, secure and loving environment and develop competency, independence, social skills according to their developmental level.” Joaquin attended for a few months before the staff began to express their concerns about the appropriateness of his enrollment. We were told that Joaquin required one-to-one attention, he was difficult to manage and he took up too much of the Center’s time and resources. It was a refrain we would hear again and again. Programs specifically designed for children with developmental disabilities declined to grant admittance. His drive to escape, coupled with his lack of a sense of danger, made him too much of a liability. Therapists declined to continue services because Joaquin showed no discernible progress and was deemed “low” on the motivational scale.

Years later, as I began researching child development centers for my typically developing daughter, one of Joaquin’s old pre-school teachers pulled me aside and confided that Joaquin was the most difficult student he had ever encountered in his 20 year career leading Special Education classes. In fact, he continued, he had taken a year’s sabbatical (his first) after experiencing (in his own words) “a surprising level of frustration” in the year he had spent with my son. He used the sabbatical to re-examine his commitment to the special needs population. And this is a great, motivated teacher – someone we had sought out on the advice of other parents of children with autism. Thank goodness, he decided to remain in the field, but my point is this: Joaquin is tough. Objectively so. The School District resorted to padding a janitor’s closet to try and address Joaquin’s need for a stimulus free learning environment. And the Head of Transportation submitted a handwritten note that he was no longer willing to transport Joaquin because he found Joaquin so difficult that he wanted to hurt Joaquin.

This in the end was a blessing in disguise, because after that note and all the other missteps and discouragement, we finally found A Better Chance School. And the staff and teachers welcomed us. Welcomed Joaquin. And it was easy. The staff worked diligently on Joaquin’s speech therapy and occupational therapy. Over and over, they told us genuinely and enthusiastically, “We love Joaquin!” “Joaquin is amazing!” And regaled us with stories of Joaquin’s hard won victories and progress achieved. The staff celebrated Joaquin’s successes, his strengths and rolled their sleeves up whenever negative behaviors emerged. Joaquin was named Student of the Month and no one at A Better Chance School ever told us how difficult Joaquin was. Never. I worry about what will happen when Joaquin ages out of the program at ABC School. I fret that we’ll never find another program where Joaquin is so valued, but mostly I’m grateful to A Better Chance School for helping my family as we made the awkward transition from a false bravado of hope to an earned sense of what might be possible for Joaquin.”