Being a parent

Did I Underestimate My Son?

Written by A'Driane Nieves

I sat at the dining room table yesterday watching him gleefully write out the last ten digits on his one to 100 numbers writing homework sheet. “90…91…92…93…94,” he stated emphatically, his teeth clenching slightly as he focused on applying the necessary amount of pressure on the page so each mark would show up.

I looked at his hand, marveling at how his teacher’s idea to wrap a hair tie around the pencil and his wrist (a mere six weeks ago) quickly enabled his fingers to grip a pencil with enough coordination and strength to write legibly.

“100!” He declared it with pride, and his eyes beamed as they met mine for a few quick seconds before shifting excitedly back down toward his paper. I watched him examine the numbers in each box, thrilled with his accomplishment.

It’s still a bit surreal to me, observing these kinds of milestones unfold in his life, at his own pace, and in his own way. Sometimes they happen so suddenly and fluidly for him that I feel foolish for worrying he wouldn’t meet them.

Every one reminds me of how much progress he’s made since we began early intervention three-and-a-half years ago, and how much he can advance in a short span of time. Just six months ago, for example, he could barely write his name, even though he knew exactly how to spell it. And here he is, a few months into kindergarten, writing numbers 100 numbers thanks to a simple yet effective accommodation. He’s reading at a first-grade level, eating lunch in a noisy cafeteria, shouting goodbye to classmates and other students he recognizes after school on the walk back to the van. He’s transitioning seamlessly between his special day class for kids on the spectrum and his mainstream classroom.

We were admittedly nervous about how he’d adjust socially to kindergarten more than anything else. Academically, we knew he was ready and could handle it, even with fine motor challenges, like writing. We were not sure if the social aspect of school would overwhelm him.

In addition to being autistic, he also has sensory processing disorder and can easily become overwhelmed when in an unfamiliar, sensory dynamic environment. How would he respond to demands from his teacher? Even in a smaller, specialized class would he feel comfortable enough to ask an aide for help if he got stuck or needed to go to the bathroom? How would he handle social interactions with his peers? Would he make a friend? He thrives on routine and predictability, so how would he react to the unexpected in a structured, new environment? And perhaps our biggest question was this: how would he do in a mainstream class with “typical” peers?

These were the concerns we made sure to express to the assessment team during our evaluation and IEP process last spring. They factored heavily in the team’s recommendation to place him in a small, “hybrid” special day class for kindergarteners and first-graders on the spectrum. The plan was to slowly build up to a mainstream classroom. We were optimistic but cautious, unsure of what to expect, as this would be new territory for all of us.

As it turns out, he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations thus far, leaving me to wonder if our fears and anxieties as his parents led us to underestimate him. Not only is he thriving in his specialized class, he’s spending nearly half his day mainstreamed, with a teacher who’s highly attuned to both his strengths and challenges. It’s been a joy to watch him find his stride as he navigates this new journey. It’s also been an important lesson for us as his advocates in how to stay open to possibility versus being defined by constraints.

I sat at the table watching carefully write out each number, and I realized he had been ready for this milestone all along – we were the ones who needed to catch up.

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A'Driane Nieves