When the teacher becomes the student
by Laura Maitland
Parenthood is hard. There's just no getting around it.
There is nothing you can do really to adequately prepare for the journey you are about to undertake.
For me, being a mom has been an amazing, exhausting, wonderful, and yet terrifying experience. This conglomerate of emotions is a paradox in every sense of the word.
I was always interested in working with children and knew I wanted to have a family at some point in the future. In the meantime, I knew that early childhood was where I wanted to be. Fresh out of college with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, I took on the job as an Applied Behavior Therapist with children of all ages many of who had an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. Whenever I look back on this time, now ten years past, I remember how “green” I was in comparison to all my fellow colleagues and peers. I learned many behavioral approaches and strategies to implement, ways to effectively teach learners that might be struggling, and a variety of ways to communicate with individuals with language impairment. This was my first venture into creating a task analysis plan where a skill is broken up into little baby steps. Little did I know I was taking these small steps of my own towards what laid ahead in my own future.
I still had a dream of having my own classroom and entering into the world of teaching. I began as a teacher for three to five year olds whose primary diagnosis was Autism Spectrum Disorder before moving into a Pre-Kindergarten/Kindergarten blended classroom. While still working with children with autism, this was a huge shift in perspective. Now, instead of working with already diagnosed children, I was there as families heard their child get their diagnosis for the first time. These families came from all walks of life- different cultural backgrounds, blended families, single parent homes, and in one particular instance foster parents who wanted to make a difference in the life of a child. All were entrusting their children into my care for the better part of six hours a day, five days a week. While I felt the enormity of the responsibility and certainly emphasized with the families even referring to my students as “my kids,” I still had a long way to go in understanding on the realities of what it means to be a parent and one with a child with special needs.
When you become pregnant, you have all these hopes and dreams of what your child might be. Usually, we try to re-emphasize the fact that as long as they are happy and healthy, ten fingers and ten toes, that is all you need to wish for. I was the type of mom who read What to Expect When You're Expecting cover to cover. Nothing about my first born was as expected or a textbook case. He cried...a lot. During the day he was calm, but mostly expressionless- however, at night he would scream hysterically for hours on end and could only be soothed through rocking or nursing. While the crying phase slowly abated over time, we began seeing other indicators of a bigger issue at hand. As he approached eighteen months, the list of milestones that he had delays in grew more daunting. He was not pointing to objects or other children. He was unable to walk and his muscle tone was poor at best. He would gain a word and then lose the word a month later. When I realized he lost “mama” it was gut-wrenching. I dreaded filling out the pediatrician milestone sheets and would challenge myself to find a way for him to mastering said skill. I was fighting the inevitable.
My oldest was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder shortly after his second birthday. I can still remember that moment when the word “Autism Spectrum Disorder” was said and how even knowing it was coming it still hurt. In a way, I was as prepared for his diagnosis as a college student is for their entrance exams. I had majored in Psychology. I had spent several years working as a behavior therapist before teaching a Pre-K Autism class leading up to the time of my pregnancy. I knew the warning signs to look for, had seen them, and gotten an early diagnosis. However, at the end of the day, none of that mattered. I still felt just as lost and scared as I'm sure many other parents feel. As I said before, you have all these hopes and dreams of what your child might be. In this case, some need to be set aside so you can focus on what their new goals and dreams for them are.
I struggle every day. Parenthood is hard. Being a special needs mom is hard.
I have learned though and continue to find myself learning. Being the parent of my son taught me so much more than I could have imagined. It taught me the capacity of love is far-reaching with no end in sight. It taught me to lean on others and ask for help when I am having one of “those days” or even one of “those months.” It taught me to use my voice- not just for myself or the well-being of my family, but literally for my son who needs me to advocate for him. While I am so grateful for all the life lessons and training that my time in the education field has given me, it is not the end-all be-all. To be honest, there is no true handbook for raising a child with special needs, and it shouldn’t be that way. As a mom, you know your own child best. Some things that may work for one child will not work for another and it is at your discretion to make those choices which you feel in your heart will be the best ones with the knowledge you have been given.
I made the decision to send my son to a private school that provides the students with a 2:1 ratio, a teaching style grounded in Applied Behavior Analysis, and with continued inclusion opportunities. I also made the decision to accept a teaching position at the same school, where I can be there everyday for my son while continuing to pay it forward in a sense to other parents and families in the community. When I see my families now, there is nothing, but comradery and the knowing that we are on this same journey together. Sometimes it’s scary, but there is comfort in the knowledge that what you know or don't know doesn't really matter. We all begin this walk with the same powerful motivating force and that is the love for our child. That is what gives me strength each and every day. That is what makes me want to be a better person That is what makes me want to continue learning and growing. Not because I need to have all the answers or that I need to be perfect. But because I want to do it for him. For the first time in my life, I am no longer scared. I have a plan that works for us. The future is a different one, but a bright one all the same. That is what makes a hard situation a beautiful one.
Laura Maitland is an educator with a background in Exceptional Student Education, Early Childhood Education, and Applied Behavioral Analysis. She is a mom of two boys one of which has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.