Our son, Holden, just celebrated his 13th birthday. Unlike typical boys his age, sports, girls and the latest music downloads are not on his radar. Holden is autistic. He still loves Disney characters, going camping with Dad, and getting chicken nuggets and french fries at his favorite fast-food restaurant. Our son, Holden, just celebrated his 13th birthday. Unlike typical boys his age, sports, girls and the latest music downloads are not on his radar. Holden is autistic. He still loves Disney characters, going camping with Dad, and getting chicken nuggets and french fries at his favorite fast-food restaurant.
At school, Holden has exceeded our expectations. In his elementary days, he was shadowed by a teaching assistant while he was in class. This string of very loving, patient women would help him stay focused and take him out for a little R&R when the classroom routine got too rigorous. They were a big part of his ability to succeed academically.
We were very anxious when we moved to a new school district. In the first IEP (individualized education program, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) meeting, the staff almost laughed when we suggested Holden might need an assistant. In that district, an assistant was only allotted in the direst circumstances, if it could be proven that a child would be unsafe without someone watching over him. Holden didn’t fit that bill.
Alan and I fretted about Holden slipping through the cracks in his new school. He tended to daydream without someone tapping him on the shoulder now and again to remind him to pay attention to the teacher. We imagined him sitting at his desk in a daze all afternoon, missing learning time to the visions of Aladdin and Jafar that danced through his head.
As the school year got under way, we noticed that Holden was doing his work fairly independently, proud to cross off his assignments and have us sign his planner after completion. In talking with his teacher, we learned that it only took a couple of weeks with a peer buddy helping him and he was able to walk to his new class independently, books in hand.
Of course Holden has made mistakes, such as bringing the wrong materials from time to time, but when he didn’t earn his reward those days, he quickly self-corrected. If we got tied up and didn’t get to his homework right away, Holden would insist that we get his work out, so he could complete the assignment for his teacher. Out of our five children, Holden went from being the least motivated to the most reliable for getting his homework done.
This was Holden’s first year in middle school. Again we were anxious about how he would adjust to passing noisy kids in the halls and learning the mechanics of lockers and combination locks. He has risen to the occasion. In his last IEP meeting, we heard Holden has been “tutoring” other students in math. He also goes to homeroom, checks out the schedule every day, and even takes it upon himself to change the date for his teacher each morning.
How did the changes come about? Rewards have worked wonders. I should specify that the right rewards have worked wonders. A few minutes with his favorite computer game gets him every time.
And giving our son a little freedom to learn on his own, without us looking over his shoulder, has helped. It’s hard to give a special needs child room to grow and sometimes make mistakes. I’m still working on that, but I’ve learned through Holden’s academic improvements that special needs children can progress—with tiny steps maybe, but they are a beautiful thing to behold.
Kelly Taylor, her husband, Alan, and their five children in 2008 moved from their Liverpool home of 10 years to Greenville, N.C. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.