third time's the charm?
14 April 2004

By this time three years ago, we had already pulled Damian out of his first disastrous preschool and were just about enroll him in the therapeutic school he still attends. Leaving the mainstream felt like a burden lifted.

By this time last year we’d put a halt to the experiment of adding a typical preschool experience to his special needs school. Leaving then felt like a failure, like a warning: Construction Work on The Road Ahead.

This past fall when we started the newest attempt at mingling with typical children, this third exposure to a typical preschool setting, I was naturally anxious. Third time’s the charm or third time just proves he still isn’t ready? Or maybe ready enough to get by but not to fit in, never to fit in. And was it the right place? Had we made the right decision? Was this going to work? It felt good but was it?

It is.

Damian has a silent shadow two of his three mornings there. Silent means he doesn’t know she’s there for him, he thinks of her as another teacher. We wanted a floor time therapist for the job, someone who was going to be aware of his sensory needs and who would know how to facilitate play with other children. Someone who was properly trained and could read his cues. We told Damian that Stacey has two jobs; she works at his afternoon school sometimes as a floor timer and at his morning school sometimes as a teacher. He accepted that. Hey, he’s five years old. For all he knows, all his floor timers moonlight at other schools.

We got lucky in the aide; she’s very good. She knows how to help him reorganize his body; she has him (and all the other kids) bring heavy phone books to circle time (proprioceptive input acts to ground him), she gives deep pressure hugs and gently helps him learn to initiate play. She even instigated a reorganization of the schoolroom and yard to cut down on the noise and chaos. We also got lucky in the school; the teacher is not only excellent at bridging child interaction all by herself but when I lent her The Out-of-Sync Child, she devoured it and urged the school director to buy several copies and make the other teachers read it too. She picks Stacey’s brain for more information. So she understands a bit of what makes Damian retreat sometimes, gets a little how she can help him not retreat.

How is he doing there? Well, he never complains about going even though it means he has to get up early (not a morning person, my child). If you ask him which school he prefers, he often says “The morning school.” When I arrive to bring him to his afternoon school, he’s often so involved in what he’s doing that he asks for more time to play. He has a best friend at this school. I’ll call him Teddy. They have games they love to play every day: they pretend to be kitty cats, they race their trikes, they play construction games in the sandbox. They have arguments. They negotiate. They act like children. Together. Without needing additional support.

The teacher told me about one time recently: Teddy was being bossy that morning. Usually there’s a give and take but this time Teddy wasn’t listening to Damian. So Damian said something and then left the game. Teddy stomped and blustered to the teacher, who told him Damian needed a little time to cool off. Damian sat in the rocking chair in the book corner and leafed through a book. He used to do this way back in his first preschool. There it meant he was shutting out the too-frightening world. But this time as he read, he kept peeking over the edge of the book, checking on his friend’s mood. And when he finished, he put the book down and trotted back over to the play table. The two boys hashed it out and went back to playing side by side. The director later told me she watched the whole thing, impressed at Damian’s maturity, that he didn’t just kowtow to Teddy’s bossiness or get pissy back, he left and then came back when he was ready.

The director tells me that parents know Stacey’s there for someone but they don’t know who the child is. Sometimes they come up to her with a conspiratorial glint, “I think I know who it is,” they’ll say. She raises her eyebrows. “Oh?” They tell her their guess. They’re always wrong.

A friend of mine was there recently looking at the school for her own child. The director told her the same story. My friend’s behaviorist visited the school a few days later. She corroborated it. Said when she heard Damian’s name, her head whipped around. She watched him for a bit. The verdict: He has some small sensory issues but socially? He’s right on target for his age. Doing better than some of the other kids.

Can I say it feels good? Can I say it feels amazingly, floating-on-the-ceiling good? It’s one thing for him to fit in at his therapeutic preschool. His classmates there are also on the spectrum. They make allowances for each other. They don’t have to respond quite right or know how to act. They all have gaps. The real test is in how he handles himself among typically developing children. That’s what he’ll need to do next year in kindergarten. That’s what scared him not so long ago. Now he wades in.

I’m not going to pretend it’s all perfect or that he’s the most social creature in the room. Sometimes he gets overwhelmed by the noise and commotion, sometimes he’s just having an off day and he reverts to an earlier self, standing at the sensory table on tiptoe, running sand through his fingers, seeking that steadying input. But he doesn’t run away. He doesn’t lose his words. And he comes back a week or a day or even an hour later and he’s fully present again. When he started at this school, I used to fret about the one day per week he was there sans shadow. I don’t worry anymore. I know he’ll do just as well without the extra support.

He’s chatty there too. Argumentative, even. The other day, he wanted to coax the teacher to write his name for him. She wanted him to write it himself, so she said her hand hurt. He told her she should write with her left hand. They apparently went back and forth like this for another few iterations, Damian coming up with all sorts of semi-logical reasons for her to do his task. That sounds like the child I know at home. I remember when the reports from his other preschool began to sound like the buoyant, silly child I knew at home. It felt like a victory. Now he’s himself at this school too and that’s even better.

His therapeutic preschool was closed last week for spring break. Damian went to his other preschool Monday through Wednesday instead of his usual Wednesday through Friday. He also stayed an extra hour, until 12:30 instead of 11:30. His friend Teddy was thrilled. “You mean you’ll have lunch with me??” When I came to pick Damian up, he looked completely at home there. Completely comfortable. When I asked if he wanted to go on Thursday too, to add a day to his normal week there, he said yes. Happily. He'd have gone Friday too, if the school was open. He likes the place.

This school is like training wheels for kindergarten. It’s teaching him exactly what he needed to learn: that a group of typical children, in all their pushing and shoving and laughing and shouting splendor, is no longer too much for him. In fact, it may be just right. I think he may even prefer these children with their reliably quick imaginations and happy “Hi Damian!” waves in the morning. And as I see him become more himself, more engaged, and more in tune with this formerly scary environment, I begin to think next year will go well too, that he’s actually honest-to-god ready to mainstream.

Mainstream. An interesting word, don’t you think? As if he’s been swimming alongside the main river but in a shallower tributary, with a sandy bottom brushing against his belly to keep him from drowning, giving him the strength and body awareness to swim well enough, and now he’s ready to join the main stream, enter the faster, stronger flow. Kindergarten, here we come. Unexpected tears in my eyes at the thought. My little fish in the big stream. I want to protect him forever but he doesn’t need it so much anymore, does he?

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copyright 2004 Tamar