My beautiful, 11-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. I have raised him in Prince George’s County, and that has meant becoming a quick study on the support systems that are possible through the school district. Like all districts, Prince George’s County Public Schools has its share of strengths and challenges.
My family has been fortunate in that my son has enjoyed effective support at school since his diagnosis at age 3. He has thrived as a result of an early-intervention program in the early years and an elementary school that offers staff specially trained to work with students on the spectrum.
Over the years, I counted my blessings as I read online about other parents who struggled to find adequate school support for their children. While I felt for those parents, I had to admit I knew nothing of their nightmare. I would say a prayer of strength for them and a prayer of thanks for us. I suppose the universe decided it was time for our family to learn what it means to become true advocates for our child. Our number was up as fifth grade began.
Joshua loves his elementary school. He has done well in general-population classes with the assistance of a special-education teacher. The inclusive culture of the school has allowed him to make friends within and outside the autism program. His school extends through eighth grade. It was a comfort to me to know that Joshua would remain in this environment until he had reached a point of maturity that would lend itself to a transition to high school.
That vision was crushed when we were informed that the county determined that the supports for students on the spectrum would not be extended at his school into the middle school grades and that these students would need to transition out of the school after fifth grade. As I struggled to figure out what this meant for my son, my own nightmare began as I realized that I would have to break the news to Joshua. His friends who were not in the autism program would continue on to sixth grade in their familiar environment. But Joshua and his friends on the spectrum would not be supported to do so.
How do you explain that to a kid who already knows other people see him as different?
I assumed that my son’s school team would lay out our options for middle school so we could consider what would fit Joshua’s needs. After all, Joshua had worked with his team over the years, and they knew his strengths and weaknesses. They knew my kid.
Sadly, those expectations were not met. Instead, Joshua and most of his school friends on the spectrum were automatically directed to one middle school. There was no consideration of fit. The only determining factor was that Joshua can hold his own in a general-population classroom with support. The closest school that has space and offers dedicated support involves a 50-minute bus ride each way. That school’s autism program is understandably crowded — multiple schools use it as the one option for their students on the spectrum who are heading to middle school. The program is decent, but there was no choice. We were not allowed to consider our son’s specific needs and choose a setting that would best support him. The county met the minimum requirement, and it was done. No one was willing to talk to us about arriving at a solution for Joshua that felt right.
I still am not at peace about Joshua’s middle school prospects. I know my son better than anyone, and the county we have called home for years refused to listen to me. It has been eye-opening. These very special kids with unique needs are viewed in one box. While that reality hurts, it has strengthened me as my child’s advocate and has motivated me to speak up for others.
If someone takes a moment and listens, he or she will be blessed to find a whole host of parents who want to partner creatively in supporting these wonderful students.