Bella started her new preschool program today. It was the first morning of the year that I had to wake up both the older girls and get them ready for school. I drove Phaedra to school, dropped Surrey off with Grandma, and drove Bella to school myself. Normally, the school bus will come directly to our door to pick Bella up for school each day. This is because Bella’s program is a special education program, and that’s how we roll in the state of Michigan. Just as an aside — if there are any benefits to this whole autism thing, I must say that free preschool and transportation to and from school are nice perks.
We’ve been preparing for this day for the past month or so: talking about her new school, having her teachers over for a routine home visit, and generally getting her mentally prepared for her new school. We had to make sure she understood that she was attending a new program, and not her former program which she had caused her so much anxiety by the end of the school year. We started calling the new school “Clifford School”, because of the enormous stuffed Clifford that sits in the school office. You know, the one that’s three times the size of Bella. Not that this stopped her from putting every ounce of energy, will, and determination into trying to pick Clifford up and carry him around the office. (She didn’t succeed, but she gave it a damn good effort.)
Finally, everyone else was dropped off, Bella and I made our way to Clifford School. Now, I can’t really explain this, except to say it was the combination of a crappy night’s sleep, a lack of caffeine, four months’ worth of anticipation, and the fact that the Annie soundtrack we were listening to that morning had just reached its final triumphant conclusion, but as I turned onto the street to get to Clifford School, I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to start crying.
While it could have just been the perfect storm of emotional ingredients listed above, I think the bigger reason this felt so big and sobby was it finally felt like we were moving forward. Ever since her diagnosis last March, I’ve felt like we’ve just been treading water. Opinions and answers we have in triplicate; actual help and therapies, we’ve had none. Not for a lack of pursuing it, of course, but due to the never-ending waiting lists at every turn, around every corner. We waited three fucking months for an appointment that basically told us exactly what the pediatrician and the school district already said: yes, she’s high-functioning autistic. Yes, she would probably respond very well to occupational, speech, and ABA therapy. Yes, you can receive all of those therapies here, of which we recommend about 35 hours per week. So, go ahead and give us your name and availability, and we’ll just add you to a brand-new waiting list! But don’t worry, this one is only two months long. Maybe. Actually, we’re just guessing; we’ll call you when we get an opening.
None of that ridiculousness is their fault, mind you — they’re an exceptionally great center for treatment which is overwhelmed by patients living in a state with a shortage of providers and an overabundance of patients that can suddenly pay for therapies because of a law that was recently passed. We would find ourselves on a waiting list just about anywhere. But in the meantime, the clock is ticking. The window of opportunity that therapy must climb through in order to have the most impact on Bella is sliding shut at an alarmingly fast rate.
So this morning, when I realized that for the first time, she’d be entering an environment geared specifically towards helping her become the best, happiest, secure version of Bella possible, that I wouldn’t have to worry about her when she was at school anymore because she will be surrounded by people that understand her, that will help her when she needs help and gently nudge her along when she needs it? It felt so big. I had to do a few cleansing breaths and beauty-queen waves at my eyes, but I kept it together long enough to get Bella out of the car and begin walking to the school. “Mom, we’re HERE!” she shouted when she got a good look at the building. “We’re on a school adventure!”
Indeed, baby. Indeed.
The kids sat in a semi-circle around their teacher, some using blue foam cushions on those tiny plastic chairs that you only see in preschools. The parents stood on the other side of the small classroom, smiling and nervously watching their children become students. The teacher was going over the schedule for the day, represented by a series of simple pictures. Children like Bella and her classmates depend on routine, and feel secure when they know what’s happening next. They also think visually, with images instead of spoken or written words. The best way to communicate with them is through pictures that their brains can comprehend easily, instead of forcing their brains to translate a string of words back into images for their brain to process and act upon. When the teacher reached the picture for “snack time”, the teacher asked Bella what she thought the picture meant. “Snacks!” she responded after a quick beat.
“Yes, very good Bella!” said her teacher.
Bella turned around in her chair, found my face in the crowd, and said, “Mom! I’m doing a great job!”
“Yes you are, baby!”
That time, I knew exactly why I was choked up.
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