2006-03-02 / Letters to the Editor

Special needs childen at school

Life has handed me a unique understanding on the dichotomy of special versus typical needs children. I have twins: one is profoundly, nonverbal autistic and the other perfectly typical. At the time of his diagnosis in 1999, one in 500 children were diagnosed with autism/PDD. My son began preschool at 3 years old, and I refused to break the only social link he had left, the bond with his twin sister. At the time, the school had considerable reservations about meeting his needs, and pushed for out-of-district placement. I insisted that he was a community member, and it was more important to me that he function socially as a vital, engaged child. My daughter and son entered the pre-school program together.

The school and I both made concessions with my son’s program. We learned through our mistakes, professional training, experience, and my child’s progress. We were, and are, creative, flexible and dedicated to my son’s education and the typical children around him. Through our ongoing vigilant efforts, my son has remained in the Melrose school system for seven years. As a team, we have developed an excellent program for children with pervasive developmental disorder within the mainstream educational environment.

Along the way, we have saved the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Average, annual tuition for my son for an out-of-district placement for 230-days is upwards of $70,000. The bus driver, monitor, bus fees, and fuel add another $40,000 annually. Currently, there are 12 Jamestown children from preschool to the fourth grade that satisfy the requirements for out-of-district placement. Using simple mathematics and gross assumptions, this could cost the Jamestown taxpayers over a $1,000,000 annually without considering the needs of middle/high school special education and the typical children. If my child can progress academically and contribute socially, he will stay in the Jamestown School system. Currently, one in 166 children are diagnosed with autism.

My “favorite” rumor is that families with disabled children move to Jamestown specifically for the special education program. It suggests they are here to suck the lifeblood out of the school system and the taxpayers. My son was born here. My friend’s children were diagnosed three years after the family had located to Jamestown. Another family has been a summer resident for years and became a permanent resident two years ago; their child was just diagnosed. And, there is one family that moved here particularly for their child to be involved with the special education program. They pulled up their roots, moved from their community, sold their home and relocated their children. And, I understand their motivation. Simply put, I might call it desperation. I’ve been there. And, what loving parent or family won’t do almost anything to help a disabled family member in need. These children are not leaving once they are “cured.” They are here to stay and be part of our community.

The only difference between Jamestown’s special needs children and the rest of the island population is that you may not be experiencing a family member with a temporary or long-term disability. Fate hasn’t knocked at your door, yet. Autism, Alzheimer’s, cancer, birth defects, Parkinson’s, a debilitating car accident, hasn’t happened to you, yet. For families living with disabilities, our entire perspective, attitude, and expectations are tested and refocused, and tested again.

As far as disenfranchising the typical children within the school system, my daughter is thriving. She and other typical children who interact with my son have a life experience that generally aren’t afforded to older generations. Until recently, children like my son were a social embarrassment that were shelved in basement classrooms or hidden at the Ladd School. Typical children, who are included in my son’s educational program, have the deepest understanding of empathy, patience, effort, gentleness, motivation, pride, and triumph. When Ben walked my son through their kindergarten graduation (according to Ben they didn’t need a teacher), it went off without a hitch. Both boys triumphed. After months, when my son’s sixth grade buddies finally taught him to skip, the three musketeers’ immense pride was obvious.

There but for the grace of fate go you. And, this community has been graced by our special needs members, whatever the age or the need.

Amy Barclay de Tolly


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