Health & Medical Autism

A New Beginning for Tom - Part Four of My Memoir

Updated March 26, 2015.

A Perfect Preschool

In the last "chapter" of this memoir, I described a synagogue-based preschool, right around the corner, which actually included a dedicated special needs classroom with a small group of children, a trained teacher, and an aide.  The school was right around the corner, and while it was pricey, it did offer a toddler room for our daughter -- a big plus.  In addition, though the special needs program was mornings-only, Tom was welcome to be included in the typical afternoon program with a wraparound aide, provided by Early Intervention through the state.

  We were in good hands, we felt, especially since the preschool ALSO had established relationships with county-funded therapists who came in and worked with the kids on site!

Religious Education

At this point, we had enrolled our kids in a total of four different preschools, based variously at an Episcopalian church, a Reform Jewish synagogue, a Quaker ("Friends") school and, now, we were headed for a Conservative synagogue.  We had no particular religious affiliation -- and while there had been a little bit of religious content in each prior setting, we had never anticipated quite the level of religious education in store for our son (and for us!).

As Tom got settled in his new surroundings, we learned that his preschool experience would include not only social skills, play skills, ABC's, basic math, and the usual gross/fine motor education but also an introduction to Hebrew prayer and celebration of all the major -- and minor -- Jewish holidays.  He would wear a yarmulke (skull cap) when eating meals and snacks, and he would bring home a delicious loaf of challah bread each Friday on the sabbath.


Tom loved all the ritual, learned the prayers, and grew extremely fond of challah (egg bread).  While I had grown up in a Jewish neighborhood -- and half my family was Jewish -- and I had gone to seder services almost every year -- I knew very little of what my son was learning.  But it was all good.  His amazing memory meant that he could chant the "three questions" at our friends' Passover dinner, making us proud parents indeed.  The only real down side was that the synagogue celebrated ALL the Jewish holidays -- even ones we had never heard of -- by taking multiple days off of school. 

Insider's Guide to "What You Can Get"

After the first month or so, the director of the preschool took me aside.  "We have some wonderful parents who have children with special needs, and many of them know a great deal about available services," she told me.  "Would you like me to introduce you to a couple of moms whose sons are very much like yours?"  Of course, the answer was yes -- and a week later I found myself at the local coffee shop across from an extremely well-groomed mom with a Bermuda tan.  In front of her were two huge file boxes.

Naturally, I knew something about this mom from the preschool, and of course I knew her son.  While yes, he probably had some very mild special needs, he seemed to be bright, articulate, and sociable.  Yet the mom -- let's call her Liz -- had spent the past two years gathering and making extremely good use of information about services and programs available to him.

Through Liz, I learned that my son's diagnosis was actually "on the spectrum."  Her son was also on the spectrum, with a diagnosis I'd barely heard of called "Asperger syndrome." Liz went on to explain that most therapists wanted children with autism to received Applied Behavioral Analysis, but so far as she was concerned it was like training a seal.  She preferred something I'd never heard of, called Floortime -- a form of play therapy.

She then explained that, even though she and her husband made a very good living, it was possible to get a huge range of free services through Early Intervention and various other agencies.  She herself had managed to get many hours of wraparound services in her home -- which worked out very well as it gave her time to shop and get errands done!  There were also additional therapies, summer services, and a whole range of programs and options that meant nothing to me at the time.  All in all, her son received over 30 hours of therapies and supports each week.

In my innocence, I said, "But your son is only four years old, and he seems to be doing very well in preschool.  Why would he need so many therapies and so much support?"

Her response stuck with me for many years.  "If you want your child to be mainstreamed successfully by kindergarten," she said, "this is what you need to do."

At the time, and for many years to follow, I pondered this statement, wondering - first - what the outcome would be if Tom were NOT mainstreamed and - later - whether "mainstreaming" really qualified as the right goal for any child with any type of differences.

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