This past week I finally got around to checking out a local centre that provides programs and support for people with disabilities, including kids with autism. Through our government funding I would receive notices that they were holding day camps over spring break, and after-school programs starting each fall. I wasn’t sure that my little guy was ready for such things. I had assumptions about what these programs would look like which, in hindsight, were rather silly but understandable.
See, over the years I had gotten used to the fact that my son’s issues were beyond what your average gym coach, art teacher, or camp counsellor could manage. Enrolling him in such programs was out of the question once he got to an age where parents no longer participated in the class. The few times I tried were stressful for both him and myself. In the homeschooling community things were better because there were lots of adults around to supervise whenever we got together for classes, field trips, etc. However, as the kids got older and the other children required less parental supervision I found myself the lone parent following her child around while the others gathered together for social time. It sucked for me, and I don’t think he appreciated me hovering over him either. He was not being allowed the chance to experience life without his mother hanging around. And while I think that kids today spend far too much time away from parents, I do think its important that they have some opportunities to do things without siblings or parents around to gain confidence and a feeling of having something that is their own.
This past year and a half we have built a great community of individuals on whom my son can depend. He works with these people one-on-one and they have given him the incredible gift of understanding and acceptance. It is wonderful for him to have people in his life who “get” him, who understand the issues he faces and who do not judge him or treat him like there is something wrong with him. This was a critical first step in his “Intervention Plan”. But I also wanted for him to be able to participate in group activities, to get out in the community and spend time with other children without me hanging around.
When the flyer for Spring Break camp arrived in the mail last week I felt like we might be ready to tackle this. My daughter, having gotten her diagnosis this past fall, was now eligible to participate and I thought with her there it would be less scary for my son. But I still worried about him. The days would be long, five in a row, and I worried that he’d get overstimulated. Would he be able to take the breaks he needed? What would happen if he started freaking out on the field trip bus? What if he hit someone? Would he come home a ball of stress?
So I called the centre to ask about the program and got introduced to an angel of a woman who runs the autism programs. Within a few minutes of speaking with her I knew that she “got” me, my life, my son. I was so excited that I ended up going down there to speak more with her in person. She showed me around the centre where the after-school programs are held (most days; they also often go out on field trips) and I was amazed. They had a “sensory room” where kids could unwind. The room seemed like it was designed for him. Mats for rolling around on the floor while movies were projected onto the walls, a big comfy sofa with pillows and weighted blankets, a “bouncy chair” built for big kids, a giant lava lamp, and dimmer switches on the lights.
And this is where my not-so-surprising surprise comes in. My first thought when I walked into that room was that it was tailor-made for my son, and how did they know this was what he would need? Well of course they would, it’s a program for autistic kids! As we finished the tour I knew that this was a place where my son could finally feel like a “normal” kid – able to go hang out with a bunch of other kids, go on field trips, bake cookies in their large kitchen, build Lego, make forts, etc…but where everybody understood him, his needs, and treated it all like it was normal and acceptable to be who he was. And without his mother following him around, or being in the shadow of his big sister. I was thrilled when she told me there was still room in the after-school program and invited him to participate in that week’s outing to a local school gymnasium.
He couldn’t wait to go, and when I came to pick him up he didn’t want to go home. I was reminded of how he much loved preschool (it was a nightmare for the rest of us). I was thrilled for him. On the way home I asked him what we should call the program (saying “it’s time to go to after-school care” doesn’t sound right, especially since he doesn’t go to school) and he said “It’s like school, but without all the bullshit”. I had to laugh. I suppose in a way this is like school in that there is a group of kids and planned activities and adults who are there to help out. But nobody was pushing academics on him or forcing him to do things he couldn’t handle. So we decided to call it “Fun School”.
He’ll be going every Wednesday and then during Spring Break he will go for the whole week. By then he will be completely comfortable with the staff and the other kids, they will know him, and I feel great about all of it. They also run summer programs. I see this place as a whole new community having opened up for my boy and I am so happy for him. My goal for him was always to expand his world and this week we took a huge step in that direction.