No one argues that early intervention is the most effective tool we have in addressing autism. But what happens when children are ready to enter school for kindergarten?
That is the question that my family is preparing to address. We started with Montgomery County Infants and Toddlers when our autism journey began when Ballerina and Music Man were 26 months old. Then, on their third birthday, they began attending Montgomery County Pubic Schools preschools. Music Man went to one, Ballerina to another so their individual needs can be adequately addressed. Now, they are 5 years old and, in September, will enter kindergarten. What happens next?
There are quite a few preschool programs in MCPS. Likewise, there are several special education programs for children on the autism spectrum. Three different programs were recommended to my family. The first was the Carl Sandburg School in Rockville. This is an elementary school that is 100 percent special needs. This is an academic program (working towards a college-bound high school diploma) that addresses children with various developmental issues, including autism. My husband and I visited this program to consider it for both of the twins and, although we were very impressed with the programs that were available there, we decided that it wasn't the best fit for them.
We also went to visit the "Early Learning Center," which is a classroom in selected schools throughout the county. One is located at our home school (where our children would go if they didn't have special educational needs). This is also an academic program with opportunities to be included with the mainstream classrooms. In fact, the program is designed with the intent of integrating these students throughout their elementary school years so that they are ready for a typical classroom by the time they enter middle school. My husband and I, after touring this school, believed this was the best option for both of our children.
But there is another choice on this acadmic path that we weren't considering for either of them. It's a program that we have long since believed was not going to be a good choice for either of them given their behavior issues. That choice is to place them in a typical classroom and award them opportunities to receive "resources" to help them get through their day. This includes speech and occupational therapy, but also someone to help them stay on task and opportunities to take breaks throughout the day. We are still in the process of learning what this really means, but this may actually be the best choice for Ballerina.
There are several other programs offered by MCPS, including "The Autism Program" and Learning For Independence. These, and the other programs offered by MCPS, were not suggested for us, so I know very little about them.
As a family, sitting at my computer today, I know one thing: All three of my children will be attending the same school next year. It happens to be a school very near my home, so we will no longer require transportation provided by the schools. And for Music Man, we even know who his teacher will be (because there is only one Early Learning Center class at each grade level). His current program is working to help him to be ready for the first day of kindergarten in this new program (for him, at least). Big Brother will be in a typical second grade classroom, doing the things that a typical second-grader would be doing. So, my boys are set.
With Ballerina, on the other hand, we are dealing with uncertainty. We know she will be in that same school, but we still don't know whether she would do better in the Early Learning Center with her twin brother or if she would thrive in a typical classroom with the added resources. This is a decision that we will need to make at the end of the month. In the meantime, her teachers are working with her and pushing her to try and succeed in a typical classroom. And, speaking as a mom, I am exceptionally proud of the progress that she has made in the last three months.
Autism is often diagnosed in young children, but it doesn't go away when they are ready to attend school. As a parent, it is important to research our options carefully and try to make the best decision we can. But we also have to work to stay aware of our children's performance and be prepared to request changes should the need arise. Having twins, both on the spectrum, has been a bit of a whirlwind. But it's also a remarkable journey watching them each grow and develop and see so many changes in them both! I have always been very involved in their school career (which may have started earlier than I had originally planned), and I hope to continue to do that as they continue to grow.