moving on
1 April 2003

After all my angst and hope about the afternoon school, after holding my breath for months waiting for things to get either better or worse, for Damian’s social life to solidify, I finally stopped waiting.

Yesterday afternoon I called the director and told her we’re taking a three month hiatus. She didn’t understand. I knew she wouldn’t. I’m not sure I do myself. I mean, I do, and I think it’s best but also I wonder. But as I told her on the phone, when you have a child with these issues, it’s like you’re putting together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle but the image keeps changing, so you have to fit everything together as best you can and then take it apart to reconfigure the pieces, readjust the whole. Running to catch up with where you are now. Where he is now, I should say.

I think the school was good for him for a few months. Maybe even for most of the time he was there. The kids are sweet, the yard is grassy and inviting, and the children quickly became enamored of Kahuna, and by extension of Damian himself. For a while it seemed like Damian was enjoying that. I’ve written about it here, about how he followed Rosie’s lead, racing across the yard hand in hand, how he looked for someone to play on the teeter totter with him, how in small ways he started to fit into that world, to seem like a regular kid there.

But there are problems with the place itself. It’s a full day program. Nearly all the kids get there at nine a.m. and leave mid-to-late afternoon. Five days a week. And Damian was only there two afternoons from 2:30 to 5:30. How could anyone fit into a world where everyone is spending that much time together and you’re only an occasional visitor? These kids had their rituals, their established games, their social strata. Hell, they had cliques. Four year olds with cliques. It’s possible that with involved teachers, things might still have worked, but these teachers? Not so much.

They take a developmental approach at this school, which sounds great in theory. To me, developmental means you pay attention to the needs of the individual child instead of fitting him or her into a mold, it means spending more energy on priming and nurturing social interaction and understanding than on learning your ABCs and 123s. To me, it sounded like what the teachers at Damian’s special needs school were already doing, and just what the doctor ordered; Damian needs that focus on social life. But it turns out what developmental means at this school – and apparently most others of its kind – is that the teachers stand back and let the kids interact. Because, after all, that’s what kids do, right? They interact. They learn from each other so much better than they can learn from adult intervention.

Well, yeah. Unless your kid is on the autistic spectrum. By definition, an autistic child can’t learn from other children. At least not at first. And he can’t pick things up by osmosis, otherwise he would have no developmental delays, would he? So this stand-back-and-watch method? A disaster for a child like mine.

So what, though? Isn’t that why Kahuna was there, to facilitate? Well, yes, but if Damian can only turn to him for support, he’s going to end up feeling alone in the sea of children. If he felt a bond with the teachers there, he’d have more of a sense of a friendly place where people care about him, where he can try new things – like, say socializing with a group of children.

Still, he was doing pretty well. Having fun. Connecting with one set of kids and pulling back, then reconnecting with another child. A kind of children’s version of a square dance. Do-si-do’ing his way around the play yard. But somewhere around the time I last wrote about this, he started pulling back. I don’t know what triggered it. Maybe on some level he understood the other kids’ rejection. Maybe he’s starting to see how he’s different from other kids. All I know is that these days at the afternoon school, if a child comes up to him and wants to play, he says “No, I don’t want to.” Even his friend Rosie. And – I know I alluded to this in my last entry – when kids are playing chase but calling it Power Rangers or Superman and Spiderman, Damian bows out. This can be corrected with a judicious application of Saturday morning cartoons followed by adult-guided reenactments. But the other day, a boy – someone he’s enjoyed playing with in the past – asked him to play fire fighters together. Damian said no. When Kahuna quizzed him, he didn’t know how. Not true.

Last Friday I picked Damian up from his morning school. He has floor time with Kahuna after class on Fridays. Today (and most Fridays these days), Damian played with Corey. They’ve become buddies. They see each other Wednesdays during floor time, Fridays during floor time, and some Fridays we get together at the park or a house for an honest-to-goodness play date. I asked Kahuna how it had gone this time. “Great,” he said. How did it compare with Damian’s interactions at the afternoon school? “Night and Day.”

Night and day.

When Damian is on top of his game, he can play fairly well with another child. He still doesn’t bring much imagination into it, not the way he does with us, but he can sustain a back-and-forth, he can talk and listen and respond appropriately. He can even stay focused and on task, at least some of the time. But the environment at the afternoon school, the free-for-all called unstructured play time with kids who still feel like semi-strangers, it’s too much for him. He’s shutting down.

We don’t want to do anything to harm his confidence with other kids. It’s too hard-won. So Dan and I decided to pull him out.

We figure Kahuna can use the time to teach Damian some of the play styles other children use. Things like dressing up and playacting. Like pretending to be Rescue Heroes and knights and, hell, I don’t know, Bugs Bunny? Whatever the kids are watching, whatever games they’re playing. Kahuna can model and tutor and help Damian be more prepared next time.

But more than that, I plan to set up play dates with regular kids. Kids in the neighborhood (members of his long-ago playgroup), some kids who are already his friends, some whose parents I know and like. Kids. I want to conjure up good playmates for Damian to interact with one-on-one or two-on-one. I want him to learn how to play with various typically developing children in smaller groupings than he’ll find in an average preschool. Will I find enough kids often enough? I hope so. I think so.

We’ve got three months for this experiment. I told the director we’ll be back in the summer. We might. We’ll be somewhere, I know that. He’ll be in the afternoon program at his special needs preschool as of July, so we’ll be looking at a morning program somewhere, three to five days a week. The playdate playmates won’t be available in the mornings, as all but two go to school then, so it’s not practical to keep going with this past June. Therefore, it’s back to school. Typical school.

The school he just left might be acceptable. He’d be there more consistently, for one thing. And the morning program is more structured, which is good. But the teachers still leave something to be desired, and the other kids would still mostly be there all day. So I’m looking around, wishing I’d figured this out two months ago when the best ones weren’t already full for fall. Nevertheless, I have two look-sees scheduled, one Thursday and one Friday. I pray to whatever god is listening that one proves a better place for my sensitive, still easily overwhelmed son to flourish.

When I called yesterday to request a hiatus, the director suggested we come by today to say goodbye. So we did. Damian gave Rosie and his other little friend hugs, said bye to the teachers, and wanted to leave. When the teacher asked him to say bye to the kids down at the other end of the room, he didn’t reply. He just stood there. Uncomfortable. Already shutting down. I’m not sure he even knew any of their names, much less had relationships with any of them. He’s been there six months and connected with only two children there.

Seeing him standing there, so uncertain – it hurt. Most of the time I see him simply as a child. Yes, he has some quirks, but nothing terribly significant when you’re at home hanging out, playing silly games and laughing or talking about how food turns into poop and whether Dante is a cat or a ball of cotton candy. Most of the time when I’m with him, his diagnosis drops away. But that moment in this environment where Kahuna – and hell, Damian too – have tried so hard for the past six months to fit in, it was only too apparent how out of place he still felt.

The other kids are so comfortable with each other. They fit into the group effortlessly. But Damian doesn’t have all the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. He can’t put it together. Not yet. It makes me glad we took him out of there, glad we’re going to work on his social issues in a way that should feel less intimidating, but sad for him too. So sad.

I want to take this opportunity to link to a couple of new (well, relatively new) blogs I keep returning to obsessively. Both happen to be written by women I know from an email list. Said list is made up of some of the most interesting and intelligent women I've come across online. Allison is an American now living in Israel, a reporter and a mom. MB is a left-wing politico (my favorite kind) in Maine. Good reading.

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