September 13, 2016

Choosing a Preschool for Your Autistic Toddler

Preschool for an autistic toddler opens up many questions and worries, even more than usual. There's the usual homeschool or public school question, of course. Watching M2 and considering our family situation, I decided it's best to do a combination of both. She needs to be around other kids, have in-school therapy and other resources that homeschool can't give her. At the same time, I think she'll need supplemental at-home education.

There was also the choice of how it's best for her to get to school -- by district van or us taking her. We also had to decide on a school, using the options the school district offers. Safety is a huge factor with M2, as with any ASD child. The hours and days were also up for discussion -- nothing is set when it comes to a special-needs child. Once that was chosen, we now need to decide what, if any, outside therapy we need to add. I'm looking into ABA therapy through a private agency.

There are no clear right answers of what is best for M2, it's like a moving target that we hope we get close to. We may try something only to find that it doesn't work, or works for a short time only. I'm very aware that what works now may not in the future. One month, two months, six months, a year or more from now -- what works and is "right" can change at any time. We need to be aware and ready for that.

We looked at the school options last spring, touring a 3-year-old program based around play that we decided was the best fit. It's a special program in a regular (usually tuition-only) program that combines special-needs and neurotypical kids in one class room. The county then sends a special-education teacher and therapists to for the kids that need the extra help. Because she's coordinating through the county as a special-needs child, the tuition is waived. At home, I'll work with her myself and we'll participate in local groups when we can.

When we had the orientation a few weeks ago, M2 loved the classroom. She didn't interact with the other kids much at all and only with the teachers a little bit. Off in her own world, she went from activity to activity. I noticed right off that the other kids were speaking much more clearly and easily than she does. I can't help but worry that this will cause issues for her. Kids can be mean. Plus, she gets easily frustrated and also hurt when people don't understand what she's saying. The hope is that being around neurotypical kids will help her speech delay and behavior.

She's super excited to go to school, while I worry.

What if she is left out or picked on? Will the parents act differently toward her or us once they know she's one of the special-needs kids? Will she feel like she's on the outside like I do, since we don't fit in the same? Will she be left out by others? Will the teachers be able to keep her safe? Will the driver keep her safe? Will they know how to work with her when she has issues? What happens when the teachers don't understand what she's saying? When the kids don't? Will she be happy and feel safe and accepted?

I don't have any answers about what will happen.

All I can do is what I've already done -- make sure the teachers have as much information as possible and take each situation as it comes. Every teacher has gotten an earful about her likes, dislikes and needs.

The teachers seem very nice and competent with years of experience. M2 tried to run out of the building twice at orientation alone, one because she was in her own world, the other because she was having a meltdown. Both times, a teacher was able to stop her appropriately (there are good ways and bad ways to deal with M2 during a meltdown, like with any ASD kid). They also treated her like they would any other kid, taking into account her issues without calling attention to them or pushing her too much. I'm hoping that continues.

Everyone in the district who I've spoken to and worked with on her IEP has been wonderful. Working with us, taking my requests without argument, explaining and listening when needed. It's been a team effort so far. Not at all like some of the horror stories I've heard. At least here, no teachers or staff will be questioning me on whether or not my child is autistic.

There's the very real chance that we'll be going through this again in a couple years with B.

As the year continues and as she gets older, we'll see how it all works out. I'll continue to do what I have been, working with the teachers and staff and making the best choices I can at the time. Hopefully, they'll turn out to be the right ones. 

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