When you have a child with special needs, one of the biggest decisions you ever make for them is the choice whether to put them in a mainstream or a special needs schooling environment. There's no easy answer to that question and no one answer is the right one for every kid. It's a decision, even after its made you come back to it time and again. It never leaves you, you worry no matter what you do. You worry that your child won't get enough positive attention or that she won't be challenged enough.
Truth be told, I grapple with these things quite often. It comes up in a hundred different ways in moments you don't expect.
Like on Mother's Day.
After a lazy morning Leo and I decided, that since it was sunny to head out to the beach for the afternoon. Maya loves the beach. And I love nothing more than seeing Maya's excitement, joy and enthusiasm as she runs through the sand, marvels at the waves of the ocean against the blue sky and as she picks up seashells. I love seeing her laugh at loud as she watched the few surfers brave enough to tolerate the cold North Sea water in May as they attempted to catch a wave. And how she let out a big wow as she look at the colorful burst of kites flying overhead.
And Maya wasn't the only one in her element. Leo and I were able to assume an easy position at one of the many beachfront patio cafes, so we could relax and sip lattes while Maya ran between us, the small swingset and slide about 100 yards away and between the water's edge about 500 yards away. Her jean jacket with hot pink scarf made her easy to spot, so Leo and I were able to sit and chat easily without having to get up and down a 1000 times and be by her side every second.
At first I was a bit worried about leaving her to be at the seashore with us out of grabbing distance. Leo, who is a total worry wart and nervous nellie about issues like the right way to carry a bag or if Maya put the iPhone or iPad in the charger wasn't bothered in the least about our daughter, whose swimming skills are largely still in the learning department, flirting with the water's edge.
She's fine, he offered when I said that maybe one of us should be down there as she dipped her feet in the water.
Now Maya isn't all that much of a daredevil, so I knew she wouldn't voluntarily go in the water, but for a few minutes the image of a mini-Tsunami or the thought of high tide coming made me a little bit nervous, so I joined her down there, collecting shells and listening to her laugh and shriek with delight as she out ran the tide to avoid the cold of the water.
After 15 minutes, I wanted my latte and my feet and hands were cold so I tried to coax Maya to come back with me. Maya promised me she wouldn't go near the water so with my shoe, I drew a line in the sand and told her not to cross it, she promised and I retreated back to the couches after standing there about 5 minutes to make sure.
While Maya is a kid who does try to push her limits, she respects rules and lines and she dutifully played, outran the tide and collected shells for about an hour without ever crossing the line I drew.
Even later in the day when she returned to the shore, the first thing she did was draw a line with her finger and look back at me and nod her head to get my approval.
When the lines are not so clear, it becomes more challenging.
At one point Maya went to the swings where there was a group of girls hanging out. I could tell when Maya first approached it was not going to end well. The oldest girl there looked to be about 10 and she was Lord and Master of the swingset kind of dictating who would get the swings.
Danger Will Robinson.
Leo and I started to talk about these girls. Leo, forever being on the side that anyone who does Maya wrong is automatically in the wrong, called them bad news. But honestly, the scene was innocent enough. They were kids being kids, one asserting their authority over the others as kids do. The issue was more that in situations like these, Maya can't find the lines. She needs someone to draw them and when they are not drawn, she is not quite sure what to do.
And it's precisely when she doesn't know what to do, that it invariably goes wrong.
About ten minutes later Maya came back to the swings determined to get on one. She waited there and I could tell by her body language she was ready to pounce. When one freed up, she hopped on it and the oldest girl, tried to get her off the swing. I could tell they were arguing and I stood up but also waited to see what would happen. These girls' parents who were sitting across from us at the cafe were happily chatting with their friends and didn't notice anything awry.
And to be honest, these were just kids being kids. There really wasn't anything to notice, unless you're the parents of a child with autism.
Maya started swinging and each time she moved, the girl grabbed at the chain of the swing to pull Maya back, I started walking toward the swings. By the time I got there two of the younger girls were standing there and they were trying to grab and stop Maya from swinging. Maya I could see what getting angry and she pushed the oldest girl away from her. The oldest girl then pushed back and by that moment I was nearly at the swings and asked these girls what was going on.
The oldest girl told me that the two younger kids were waiting for the swings and Maya cut in front of them. Now I honestly didn't see that. I only saw the oldest girl there and only saw the two younger kids after Maya got on the swing. I asked Maya if she did go in front of these girls and Maya said that the girls kept calling her a boy and telling her that the swing was only for girls, so she jumped on. And then this 10 year old started shouting that Maya was a liar. Not wanting to either wipe the floor with this girl or make Maya feel badly about the situation, I just put my hand out and said to Maya that it was time to go. She jumped off the swing, took my hand and said goodbye to the girls. The oldest girl rolled her eyes and huffed and we walked away. When we reached the cafe, I could see that these girls' parents were also surveying the scene. I was a little bit annoyed that my kid had gotten picked on but feeling like making any mention of it would just prolong the situation and also wanting to teach Maya that it is better to walk away from people who are not nice, I just nodded my head at the parents and we went on with our day.
Which brings me back to the questioning of mainstreaming or special school. It occurred to me in the car on the way home that if Maya were mainstreamed, this would be a scene which would probably play out time and again for her on a daily basis. And after a while, scenes like this might start to eat away at her and make her feel badly and feel isolated.
I want many things for Maya as all parents want for their kids, but I think if I had to make a list, the number one thing I want for her is to feel good about herself. To understand that she will both win and lose, to be gracious in victory but not to be debilitated in defeat.
Actually, even if Maya were not autistic this would still be my number one want for her.
And I think, no, I know that if Maya were in a mainstream environment right now, there is a good chance that the confidence she has, the good opinion of herself that she has would be greatly at risk. That right now she is better off in a protected environment, where the lines are drawn, where she can take small steps forward without putting so much of herself at risk. Maybe someday she will get better at dealing with situations where the lines are not so clear. Right now, she is just where she needs to be.
Not a bad Mother's Day at all.