A charter school saved my autistic son from a life of mediocrity

A charter school saved my autistic son from a life of mediocrityIt’s not all that uncommon to see somewhat unhinged attacked on charter schools as a waste of tax dollars, privatizing public education, or a stealth way to enact vouchers. Those kinds of accusations never held weight with me before. Now that I have a child in a charter school, it’s much more personal. Quite frankly, the public school system as it currently stands would have pushed him into a life a mediocrity.

I have two autistic children, one of whom started kindergarten this year. He was in the early intervention program and attended the Canyons School District special needs preschool program for two years. During that time, I had frustratingly little insight as to what was going on in the classroom. I knew he enjoyed going, but I didn’t know what he was getting out of it.

What we knew going into it is that he was crazy smart. By 20 months, he was doing alphabet puzzles on his own. He learned how to turn on the TV and pick a movie from both an Apple TV AND Roku by two and a half. (This is a task that frequently stymies adults.) He figured out how to exploit a bug in his Kindle to do a factory reset before he was 4. Before he was done with preschool, he had taught himself to read almost any word put in front of him. I’ve even watched him use YouTube tutorials to figure out how to build things in Minecraft, no small task for a pre-K kid.

And yet, there’s still things he has a lot of trouble with. He still frequently has to retreat to a quiet space to be relieved of overstimulation. He still has some severe OCD, and deviation from routines can lead to meltdowns. Echolalia is a daily normality with him and he will often ask you a question not because he wants your answer, but because he wants you to ask him that question. In a normal mainstream school, these behaviors would land him squarely in a special education program. He would also be labeled as having behavior problems.

His charter school takes a very different approach. They follow the Montessori model, not the Prussian model of almost every public school in the nation. This approach stresses individualizing the approach to each child, embracing their learning styles and quirks, and affording them a large degree of independence.

So what does he have to show for it? At his parent-teacher conference, we were told he had already mastered all of the educational material a kindergartener was expected to know. He can do addition to six places. He’s learned basic multiplication and is working on division. His reading ability surpasses kids several grades ahead. And best of all, many kids not even in his class or grade say hi to him on the bus and in the halls at school. We’re told he’s universally loved by students and staff alike.

Does this sound like a behavior problem special education student to you?

Yet, that label is exactly what Canyons School District wanted to slap on him. Yes, he still has an aide to help him with the things he’s struggling with, but he doesn’t have a learning disability or behavior problem that can be trained out of him. He has a sensory processing disorder and he copes by using quirky routines to make sense of a confusing and probably scary world.

So do I exaggerate by saying that a charter school saved my child? Hardly. Maybe the normal public schools work find for other children, but I have no doubt they would have ruined mine. Don’t tell me to write him off as an acceptable loss.

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