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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What A Difference Adult Transition Makes

Here I sit in this dreary conference room in the Special Education office at our high school. This is still considered Kendal’s home campus, although he hasn't attended classes here in four years. He meets his Adult Transition team at various places in the community. However, all official meetings are still held here. 

This is his final annual goal planning meeting for the Adult Transition program. We are planning his exit and graduation.  I’m somewhere between here and existing in a state of disbelief.

Who is this young man sitting across from me sporting a beard --all calm, cool and collected? 

Every once in a while he flashes that million-dollar-smile. I don’t think he knows it’s worth a million. If he did, surely he would use it more often.  

I can't believe this is my son. My babies are all grown-ass-men. Kendal is almost an entirely different person from the teenager who attended high school here. 

In his high school days, he was a bundle of depression, anxiety, and defiance. I was seriously worried about his future. Self-motivation was non-existent. Getting him to school each day was like pulling teeth. I reached the point where I didn't bother with trying to get him to do homework at home. It took so much energy just for him to make it through the entire school day. 

When he roamed the hallways of this high school, he wore what seemed like a permanent scowl on his face to go along with matching clinched fists.  He was a big, angry-looking black dude, in a sea of mostly white and Hispanic students. Yet, he wondered why everyone wasn’t lining up to be his friend. 

How is this kid going to survive in the world as a black man with so much anger? The world isn’t going to care about his diagnosis. When he's out in the world, officers won’t stop to understand his autism before they shoot.

He had absolutely zero respect for authority. One day fed up with his high school existence, he walked into the Vice Principal’s office and proceeded to curse him out. Who does that? Let me tell you, that was a fun phone call to receive. I can still feel my heart fluttering, head throbbing and my stomach turning, just thinking about it.

What a difference a few years and an Adult Transition program makes? He’s a different person now —one hundred pounds lighter, employed and more confident than I ever could have imagined. 

I’m so glad I didn’t snub this program like I wanted to at first. When Kendal was in elementary school, he had been an A student. I believed that all of that intelligence was buried underneath his negative attitude.  I thought that his depression and hyper-focus on how much he didn't fit in, was mostly what was holding him back. I thought he just needed to get out of the high school environment. I rationalized. He would be fine once he got out into the real world. It turns out that it wasn't that simple.

I never turned down any services offered to him because of my pride or because I didn’t want him to have a specific label. It was an internal battle for sure, but I always wanted him to have all of the help possible. I wanted him operating with every advantage, more than I wanted the dream of him being the perfect child that had always imagined having.  

So many kids sit in classrooms with no diagnosis, with parents who don’t know or care to get them the help that they need. They can’t figure out why they can’t focus. They are wondering why they can't the get the work done like the rest of their peers? Why are they always in trouble? 

There are also so many parents who are trying to get special education services, and they are being denied —being told they’re their child is not disabled enough for an I.E.P.

We were lucky. My boys were never in danger of not getting what they needed. I was THAT mom with the big mouth, who just wouldn’t go away. It was my job to make sure that they were understood. I made sure that both their gifts and their deficits were clearly visible and attended to. 

It all paid off in the end. Every phone call from teachers and staff. Every meeting and conference. Every time I sat down with an administrator who tried to discipline them for things that were a direct result of their disability. Every headache and every accelerated heart-rate when the school’s name was on my caller I.D.  It felt like a lifetime of work, and I'm still exhausted from it, but here we are today. 

This is it. The finally.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were meeting to get services for pre-school.  Kendal was 3-years-old —a toddler with a speech delay. He talked plenty —most people just didn’t think it was English that he was speaking. Instinctively, I always knew what he meant and what he wanted. We are still connected by that umbilical cord. Words were not necessary for our communication.  

During his high-school-years, we sat right here in this room in countless meetings where he was utterly oppositional and combative.  One time he told us his biggest goal was to sit in the cafeteria during lunch so that he could to go talk to the cheerleaders and popular girls. Another time his goal was to be popular. The popular kids wanted nothing to do with him. Who cares if he made them uncomfortable? That was their hang up, as far as he was concerned. 
Here in this dingy room with supposed-to-be-white walls, and no artwork, I came up with the creative solutions to help him feel less isolated and alone in those tortuous, high-school days. Everyone in the room, Special Education staff, teachers and administrators supposedly had his best interest at heart. However, no one in that room represented him and his feelings one-hundred percent the way I did as his mother and advocate. I literally felt every inch of his pain and frustration. His pain was my headache and my heartache. 
The administration and some of the staff seemed more concerned with protecting the regular students who roamed the halls freely. My son, made those students feel uncomfortable.  He looked angry because he felt left out. No one except for Kendal and me was thinking about exactly how all of the pain, isolation, and rejection of his high school experience was affecting him and his self-worth. 

I look back on my high-school years with fondness. It was one of the best times of my life. I had friends, first loves, dances and football games. It hurt me that for my son high- school was mostly a traumatic experience. There were no dances or football games. Even the Friday afternoon pep rallies were an exercise in sensory overstimulation that caused meltdowns and negative behaviors. 

I remember watching him swim upstream when everyone else was heading down. He looked so lost and alone in those corridors. I would come in for a meeting, but before leaving I would stalk him from a distance. I wanted to see for myself what was going on with him and sometimes it was painful to watch. 

I sat here in this conference room when I decided to have him volunteer in the class for those more severely affected by autism and other disabilities.  He could be helpful to them. That would be good for his self-esteem. Those kids loved to see him coming. It was an opportunity for him to feel valued in an environment where he otherwise felt like he wasn’t good enough.

The others in the room said, “We want to keep Kendal safe.” Safe from acting out with other students. Safe from making threats of self-harm would make people feel uncomfortable. At the same time, they were isolating him and taking away his rights to walk the hallways like every other student. We implemented my idea, and it helped him tremendously.

Here we are today setting up the final plans for him to exit Adult-Transition (otherwise known as Eighteen Plus Services) and move forward to the next phase of his life. The program has helped him stay employed for the past 4 years. He went from working 10-15 hours per week to now working 35 hours on two different jobs. He is never late for work and seldom misses a day.

He has worked on budgeting, shopping, cooking, creating his own social and recreational routines. Some of the things he has accomplished I don’t think I would have EVER been able to get him to do on my own. If the idea came from me, it was probably not a good one. 

He was willing to listen to the team of professionals that he worked with. He may have argued with them, but he eventually heard what they were saying and moved forward.  Whenever anyone introduces any new idea to Kendal, he has to vehemently disagree with it first. That good old oppositional defiance disorder is always at work. 

For these professionals, I know it wasn’t always fun to work with him. I am forever thankful for the strength and tenacity of the team that he worked with. Ms. G. his Transition teacher for these past two years has the heart of an angel. She always treated him with dignity and respect, which is why he knew she was on his side, even when he was acting like a complete jerk. He would not be nearly as far down the road to independence without her. 

Another vital piece of the puzzle for him was Person Centered Planning. The process was excruciating for years. The Transition Coordinator for our district (another Mrs. G.) facilitated his meetings for almost 8 years altogether. The best piece of this process was putting tons of celebrations down on paper with things he accomplished each month. It also helped him focus on creating and achieving goals. 

People who deal with depression have a hard time seeing their own progress, but it was always there in black and white. There was no denying his forward movement no matter how incremental. 

There were countless others in the village that led him to success, such as Ms. Carol, his Occupational Therapist. His Pastor was once a part of his team, Mr. Mc D. the teacher he volunteered for in high school. There were so many angels on his PCP and Transition team over the years. All had faith that he could do good things, even when I was not so sure. 

I have a special friend that we made through this blog. Paul has Aspergers himself. He once wrote an incredible guest post here. Paul always told me that the boys were going to do great things someday. I was so immersed in the muck, I didn’t understand why he thought that other than the fact that he used to be such a handful to his parents. Now he is a successful husband, father and business owner. I thought of Paul as we sat in this final meeting. Paul -I get it now.

The picture I had painted of Kendal's future was bleak. I wasn’t sure of anything.  What I did know was that I wasn’t giving up and I wouldn’t allow him to give up either. 

On May 16, 2018,  he will officially graduate from the Adult Transition Program and finally receive his very hard-earned high school diploma. 

At the end of the meeting, Kendal asked if he could go visit a few of his favorite teachers before we left the building. They were all happy to see him. They are amazed by his transformation, both the weight loss and his smooth, relaxed demeanor. He gave them a glimpse of his million-dollar-smile —something that they seldom got to see when he was a student here. 

He also wanted to pay a visit to his favorite Vice-Principal (you know…the one he cursed out years ago). They shook hands, hugged and smiled as men. Kendal looked so proud of himself. He knows he has come a long way. 

He still calls me every day with questions and concerns about the next steps of his life. The anxiety abides within him, but it doesn’t keep him from moving forward. 

More big changes are coming. I’m afraid to put them down on paper until things actually happen.
I won’t bore you with all of my worries about his next chapter.  What I know for sure, is that he will continue to grow despite my fears. 

Kendal and the professionals on his team who made it all happen...