Wednesday, April 27, 2011

BELIEVE in Their Potential

I could see his mouth moving but all I could hear were the same words repeated over and over again in my heard: “mental retardation.” I flew through a series of emotions in rapid succession – confusion, sadness, anger – maybe I had misunderstood him. I stopped him mid-sentence: “Did you just say that Will is mentally retarded?” He confirmed that he had. I fired more questions at him: “Where did you come up with that diagnosis?” He explained to me that during the 20 minute testing session he had done with Will he had acquired an IQ score that placed him in the range of mental retardation. I was furious! I had witnessed this so-called IQ test and it was a joke. He had asked Will questions without first getting his attention and then he had expected verbal responses from my non-verbal son. I left the meeting enraged. This was the school psychologist and this report would now be a part of Will’s permanent file. I won’t sign it, I thought, as I drove home with the report in hand. How dare he assign an IQ to my son after only spending a few minutes with him? What qualifies him to diagnosis my son as being mentally retarded when he isn’t even a doctor? Why can’t he see Will’s tremendous potential?

Sure, I am biased because I am Will’s Mom, but I knew my son wasn’t mentally retarded. Yes, some children with Autism also struggle with mental retardation, but not Will. The next day I had an appointment with Will’s neurologist and I was eager to tell her about the school’s diagnosis. She was equally concerned. First of all, a non-verbal child should be given a Non-Verbal IQ Test (yes, there are a few). Second, this Non-Verbal IQ Test should be administered by someone who has been trained specifically to perform the test. Third, there was no need for the school to assign Will an IQ score. Will’s doctor went on to explain to me that this label could be very dangerous for my son’s academic future. Once a school assigns a student the label of mental retardation they often shift his curriculum to focus more on life skills and less on academics. In other words, Will would be learning how to dress himself and not how to write his name. Even though Will attended a private Autism school, our school district was still involved in developing and approving his IEP (Individual Education Plan) each year. She urged me to demand that this diagnosis be removed from the ETR document before I sign it. To make a long story short…I did…and they did. This story is from my previous district - not my current one.  I think you can see why we weren't too sad to leave them.

But indifferent or incompetent school administrators aren’t the only ones capable of underestimating a child’s potential; sometimes, even loving and devoted parents can allow fear to place road blocks in front of their child’s progress. When Jessica was three-and-a -half, I enrolled her in a YMCA dance class. Since she loved to shake and wiggle with her Sesame Street friends, this seemed like a perfect opportunity for her to participate in an activity with typical peers. I was so excited for her first lesson. She made it about fifteen minutes, which was actually about ten minutes more than she really deserved. She loved dancing, but had no skills to follow directions. She did not even respond to her own name, and chaos ensued as she ran wildly around the small studio. Six months later I thought she was ready to try again. I wanted to sign her up for group swim lessons; confident in her success since we had been working diligently with her teachers and tutors on her “following directions” skills. But Bill was extremely skeptical. He was afraid that she would again be disruptive to the class, and he added that he wasn’t really “in the mood for a setback.” But I persisted. I know that he only wanted to protect her from disappointment, but I explained that I could see her doing well. Like all married couples, we have our disagreements, but they usually end before they start. One of us senses that the other is determined, and in this case, I was very adamant. I knew she could succeed. And she did! I watched her proudly as she sat at the edge of the pool with her typical peers and listened intently to the directions she was given…well, as intently as any four-year-old listens.

Whether you have a child with Autism or not, with 1 in 110 children being diagnosed with Autism we are ALL going to interact with them throughout our lives.  Take a minute and look at that child. Really look at him – not as how he is right now, but how he will be in the future. See him making progress. See him communicating. See him living independently as an adult. We have to believe that these things are going to happen; otherwise, they never will. I know that not all children with Autism are the same nor is their individual potential, but they all have potential for progress. Believe that. When I look at my two children I see very different futures for them, but one very important piece is the same – I see them both advanced far beyond where they are today. I see Will living independently working outdoors with animals. I see Jessica as a highly driven, successful professional who lives by her own terms. I can close my eyes and see their futures and I truly believe it is attainable. Whether my vision will become reality, I can only guess, but I will do all I can to help them meet their potential. I have surrounded them with people who believe in their abilities, people who will push them to achieve, people who support them on the most difficult days, people who see them as happy adults, just as I do. It is very easy to focus on all the deficits these children have: Will isn’t talking; Jessica is overly rigid and non-compliant; but it is important to only let these deficits fuel our drive and determination – don’t let them deter us.