Monday, July 16, 2007

What Happens to the Spirit?

We finally had Oliver's IEP meeting. I'd been trying to get it scheduled since April. The school district has been calling me and sending letters asking that we enroll him so they could hire an aide. First, I said, I'd like to have an actual IEP draft so that I know what kindergarten would actually look like for him. Second, I'm not at all sure that we want to enroll him this year. Or ever. But we're taking that one step at a time so I left that part unspoken.

On Thursday we saw a draft of the IEP and asked to take a look at the classroom and meet the teacher. If you've been following along you might remember that we had pretty much decided that Oliver is definitely not ready for school this year. But in the interest of thoroughly weighing both sides of the issue I wanted to go through the decision-making process with an open mind. Luckily for us the next day was the last day of the ESY program and we could go over in the morning and have a look. We were encouraged to take Oliver with us.

When we arrived at the school on Friday morning Oliver wouldn't get out of the car. He obviously remembered the building from his short stint in pre-school two years ago. He was all smiles and laughter and someone who didn't know him well would have thought he was just being mischievous. But this is rather how Oliver shows nervousness and fear. I offered him a piggy-back ride and he agreed. When it came time to visit the classroom, which is located in a trailer -- um, that is, learning cottage -- at the rear of the building, Oliver agreed to take my hand and walk the hallways. As we got closer to the exit his pace slowed to a stop. I offered him another piggy-back ride and when I bent down to let him climb on he turned my body so that I was facing the opposite direction. His message was loud and clear. Don't worry, I said, I won't leave you here. We're just visiting and I'll stay with you the whole time.

The classroom itself was very noisy when we arrived. Everyone was talking and it took me a few minutes to fully take it in. I'm not sure what I was expecting but in all honesty I was completely shocked by what I saw. The room was divided up into small booths and each of the four children in the classroom was paired with an adult, each pair in their own work area. They were working on discrete trials of the kind I'm familiar with.

Touch nose. Touch shoulder. Good job. Do this. Touch nose. Good job.

Every time the child responded correctly he was given a small piece of candy. I stood nearby and watched one pair working and felt so saddened by how clinical it looked and sounded. And then I noticed that the young boy was sitting very close to the back wall and that the heavy desk was pushed so close that it was touching his little body. A rolling cart of drawers was blocking his only exit from the desk. Looking into all the other cubicles I saw nearly the same set up in each space. The children had no freedom of movement.

I looked over at Oliver who had found the one bin of fisher price toys along the wall. He is a boy of spirit, my Oliver. He laughs and cries and feels things profoundly. And he is a boy of movement and strong will. He would never be at home in a classroom such as this. It would break him. And part of me wondered if maybe that is what it was designed to do.

Leaving the classroom I thought to myself: I don't care if Oliver never learns to touch his head. I won't go to any lengths. I want him to have a good and happy life, yes. But most certainly not at the cost of his spirit.


  1. I guess I sort of agree with you, which is why this post has made me feel bad because of the ABA type classroom Roo is in.

    I guess what matters is how much time they are spending in their cubbies and how the skills are being taught in the cubby. Like Kristina always says, there is good ABA and bad ABA.

    When I was at Roo's school last, he kept taking his para by the hand and leading her into his cubby. He liked it in there. The walls made it less distracting for him and so he was better able to learn. He didn't know that at first.

    I do know what you mean about keeping his free spirit though. I have made sure to allow Roo plenty of down time.

    Also how you describe Oliver's nervous reaction is just how Roo acts when he is nervous. And he also would recognize a place that he hasn't been to in a long time.

    I guess we all just need to keep following our gut. Oliver will do just fine at home with your plans.

  2. Oh Christine, this made me cry. That is exactly how I felt when I toured the school where Nik **may** be placed if his current school cannot accomodate all his needs. I couldn't picture my spirited boy in that environment.

    Trust yourself and, equally important, trust Oliver.

  3. Oh Mamaroo, I know! I know that all ABA isn't like this classroom. I almost didn't post this because I didn't want it to be taken as a criticism of all ABA classrooms. Behavioral techniques are so powerful and the people I see using it sometimes only have minimal training. There is a danger there, I think. Limiting distractions is one thing; restraint and confinement is another. How can that be acceptable? I just can't believe what I saw was good practice and it made me feel so sad.

    Also: you've been awfully quiet lately. Any updates in the works?

  4. If there was a reason that Oliver chose you to be his mommy - this is it. You are the Great Protector for Oliver, and it just amazes me how profoundly you know him and his needs.

    -chris (sam's chris)

  5. Oh Christine, this post made me cry my eyes out. We are in the same place with Conor. If you've been following along, we too have decided not to send Conor to school this year, and focus on social skills-based activities (which are actually ABA based, but not "clinical" -- why I chose this environment instead).
    Conor reacts the same way as Oliver. How HORRIBLE that our kids have such a fear of school. On Thursday, the ABA therapist asked Conor, "Do you like school?" He vehemently shook his head and said, "I don't like school. I don't have to go to school."
    Like Mamaroo said, we have to go with our gut instinct. There's a reason why we have it.

  6. You are a wise mom. ((((Hugs))))

  7. Sometimes I am grateful no one knows anything about autism down here! The other folks are right there is good ABA, and that did not sound like it. Even in the most "by the book" ABA preschool, Cotton was never limited in his freedom of movement! I agree with limiting distractions, but that sounds a little extreem. I know you will make the right decision for Oliver.

  8. This also makes me cry. I agree, though, that there does seem to be good ABA and bad ABA. I desperately hope that John's preschool will allow for his spirit in addition to its emphasis on discrete trials.

    We are their advocates. Trust your gut, you are doing a great job.

  9. Oliver is lucky to have you, a mom who understands him and can read his communication messages in any form. I sincerely hope you find the right place for Oliver; a place where he can learn and still be himself.

  10. I hope they only spend a small part of the day doing that kind of ABA. I don't know if what a child learned in that way would generalize to anything else in life. I think ABA can be helpful, but in a really natural environment, not crammed into a desk.

    Are there other options for him in your school system?

  11. I've seen ABA classrooms just like you describe----not the one Charlie is now in! Thank you for posting this, Christine: Not all ABA classrooms are the same, and what you describe is why more than a few people are anti-ABA. If they are shoving desks against kids to make them sit, they need to re-examine their teaching methods. --- I'm getting on my high horse but our former school district would have gladly sent Charlie to such a classroom and I think you know the result.

    That said, I am envious that you can still piggyback Oliver!

  12. i'm right there with you. i KNOW that this sort of thing would have broken fluffy's spirit. i KNOW a class of 15-20 strong would have done the same thng since i KNOW his style of acting out, given all his language and tendency to laugh and smile when feeling bad and out of control, would have been interpreted as 'naughty' and NOT as dysregulation due to sensory processing disorder and accompanying delays due to aspergers.

    i don't even have to say, go with your gut. i know you will.

    the image of oliver climbing on your back in the opposite orientation is priceless! that boy was communicating CLEARLY!!!