It’s hard to believe that 2016 is already over. What an eventful year it has been for Benjamin and RPM! Since our last post, Benjamin has continued his amazing progress having found his voice.
I still vividly remember when Benjamin was just a few weeks into first grade–over seven years ago(!). We had heard that “inclusion” was very important, so we requested that Benjamin be placed in a regular 1st grade classroom with a teacher’s aide. As I recall, it took some effort to get the school to agree, which we felt was mainly because of a lack of budget.
Within a few weeks, our happy and largely peaceful 6-year old son was having a lot of disruptive outbursts in school. I went in to observe this very unexpected behavior and was disheartened to see Benjamin sitting with his aide at the edge of the classroom with absolutely no ability to participate. When he was pulled out of the classroom into the resource room for special instruction, I was shocked to see him go into a full meltdown, throwing himself on the floor and biting his arms (something he had never done to that point but still does to this day when he feels stressed or alienated). It was shortly after that observation that we worked with the school to have Benjamin placed in a therapeutic day school. Inclusion was off the table.
Why do I start this blog entry with that story? Well, seven years later, thanks to RPM, we have learned the difference between “inclusion” and truly “being included.” Benjamin now is able to work with Kristen, his RPM communication partner, at school every day, and his teacher, Corrine, has adjusted his entire school experience around his new abilities. The psychologist for our school district performed a whole battery of academic assessment tests, which Benjamin completed using RPM over dozens of hours leading up to the IEP meeting. We were so proud when we participated in his annual IEP meeting this Fall to find that he has only one academic goal (to catch him up on writing styles that he had missed out on) because he is performing at or above grade level on all subjects as demonstrated by the academic assessments!
Benjamin has always been a very social kid, but with no way to express his thoughts, this sociability has been a source of great angst for him. Benjamin now participates in mainstream classes with other 8th graders, and unlike his experience in first grade, he is now fully included. As a result, he has begun to develop friendships that extend outside of classroom. Several of his 8th grade classmates take turns in small groups having lunch with Benjamin. One classmate who is fairly new to the school wrote him a note just before Thanksgiving break telling Benjamin what an inspiration he is to her and how glad she is to have the chance to know him.
Benjamin is also now able to be included in our weekly church gatherings. He told us that he wanted to participate, and he stood up in front of the entire church group to share his decision. Before every church meeting Benjamin reads the Bible with Ashling and prepares his thoughts on what they read, which either Ashling or I then read (verbatim–his voice) on his behalf during the service. Benjamin’s thoughts are very deep and also very concise–I have a lot to learn from him in that department! Benjamin sits attentively when we share his thoughts and is clearly so glad to fully participate–we almost never have to leave the service early, which was previously very common.
One final example of Benjamin’s emerging opportunity to be included came this past week over the holiday break. Ashling’s brother visited from Ireland with his wife and four children. Benjamin’s older three cousins are very close to him in age, at 14, 13 and 11 years old. Benjamin had a fantastic time during their entire visit, and the only time he became upset was early in the visit, and he quickly answered: “I am angry that I cannot interact with Adam (his oldest cousin).” We made sure to set up opportunities for them to talk throughout the week, which both boys loved.
We went away for two nights to a water park at the Wisconsin Dells during their visit. For the first several hours at the water park, I maintained my usual duty of chaperoning Benjamin on every water ride. This is mainly to help Benjamin appropriately stand in line, which is physically challenging for him. It is also to deal with meltdowns that can occur when he loses his patience waiting. However, while Benjamin’s line-waiting skills are still a challenge, this year there were no meltdowns. Eventually Benjamin’s cousins effectively stole him away from me (as they could see I was “over-parenting”). For the first time ever, Benjamin was able to experience the water park with kids his own age! They helped him wait in line, and they helped him enter and exit the slides appropriately. Most importantly, they did it in a fully accepting way, as peers, cousins and friends, not as a “chaperone.” As you can see in the pictures, Benjamin has never been happier!
I am convinced that our original request back when Benjamin was in first grade was the right one: Benjamin deserves to be included. However, what we did not know at that time was how unprepared the “environment” (schools, SLP’s, psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists, researchers, etc.) was to help a person with Benjamin’s needs and abilities. The fundamental reason for this is that autism is still such a mystery, and we accept our responsibility to learn and advocate, and especially to help other non-/limited-verbal people with autism find their voice as Benjamin is doing.
We have seen this past year how validating it is for Benjamin to be included. He has taken the very little bit of rope that life has provided him and is not only holding on for dear life but is pulling with all his might! Benjamin works incredibly hard to be understood, and as a result of his efforts (and that of his loving support network, spearheaded by his indomitable mother), his life is changing right before our eyes. And it is impacting the lives of many others, as well.
For us, and especially Benjamin, 2016 has been an overwhelmingly good year. 2017 brings a huge transition, with Benjamin moving on to high school next Fall, so there will be much more to write on these pages in the new year…!
Enjoying the water park with his cousins and Timothy.
Benjamin and Adam after their turn, just waiting at the bottom of the slide for the Henry and Beth to arrive down the shoot.
‘Talking’ to his cousins before bed.