“What is 234 X 456?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do know. We did this before.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll give you a cookie if you tell me.”
“I want a cookie.”
“Then what is 234 X 456?”
“I want a cookie.”
“First the answer and then the cookie. What is 234 X 456?”
“I. Don’t. Know.”
“Sit back down and tell me the answer.”
Between March of the pandemic shutdown to April reopening the following year, my daughter and I have been learning from home. For the end of the 2020 term, teachers in grades two and under sent by email worksheets for the kids to finish and suggested other activities to complete. It worked out fine for us. It allowed us to work by our schedule. I printed them out and she would leave the house with her therapist to do the work at the center.
The teacher didn’t ask for them back but she completed them. It seemed that kids like my son in the older grades had to check into websites and complete work on third-party applications. We appreciated not having to do this.
My daughter works well at the therapy center where she tried to accomplish her Occupational and Speech Therapy goals. If she worked at home she would be too distracted. She ran away a lot and enforced her dominance. It may appear she was being a brat but she wasn’t. When she doesn’t want to do something for whatever reason she sticks to her choice. A lot of the times she would scream out in tantrum or meltdown. It was not good for her. At the center, she takes direction easier. Maybe because it reminded her of school.
She loves school. She enjoys her bus ride to it and entering the office of education. She loves to socialize. Teachers and staff at the school love her. She’s funny and whip-smart. Before the pandemic, she accomplished so much in many areas she was delayed in as charted in her Individualized Education Plan. I envied her. I hated school, all grades. I couldn’t wait to get home and return to my private world. I think what works for her so well is that she’s around other autistic kids and trained teachers. The kids don’t judge each other. They learn a lot from each other. The teachers somewhat understand her mind and how it works.
When the new school year started in September, so did a new procedure. All schools in the state were in-home learning. The schools used Google Classroom and Zoom. They had to sign in, turn on their webcam, and follow the schedule with the teachers they saw on their screen. It was futuristic. We were no longer able to work at our own pace. School was now at home. There was no differentiating between waking up in your bedroom and going to school. The world was all in one.
My daughter did okay with it at first. The drastic change to the pandemic world was jarring for her. Back in the Spring, she kept asking to go to school and I had to explain to her why it was closed. When September rolled around I continued to explain to her disappointment that school was not a factor now. But she still left the house with the therapist, so there was that to look forward to in the day.
Like all kids in the world, she sat in front of the laptop screen most of the time with the help of distraction. She played with stim toys or ate out of schedule and was interested in some of the videos. Like all the other kids in the class, she zoned out a lot. It was a new way of learning and communicating. It was also two-dimensional. It was not ideal or at all real where you can truly connect with someone with all your senses. A computer screen for her was ideal for watching cartoons or other educational shows that held her interest and fed her obsessions.
Sometimes she saw a video of a story or song (a good silly song was always a winner) that held her interest but she processes it in her way. Not in the way the school board wants her to internalize it. She enjoyed the cognitive journey of the story, lived it in real-time but in the end, it seemed to die or she found something else to focus on.
For example, they had story time where they watched a video and then they had to answer questions about it. What was the title? What was the main character? What did the character do? At first, some of the kids were okay. Maybe half answered the questions and the others focused elsewhere. Then I noticed that each week the childrens’ responses changed. Since they ran the same story every day for a week, they had to answer the same questions every day. Responses declined by the end of the week.
Some specialists may think because the autistic part of the brain was delaying communication from the ear to the brain or from the brain to the mouth. They zoned out during the story. I have that executive function where I zone out when listening to people talk. Based on the responses, I believe the kids were bored and tired of playing the trained monkey game. Every day they were hammered with this story and the questions. It must have been frustrating for them. They had to be thinking, This again?
The muting situation surely didn’t help. While in class, the kids had to be on mute so other kids and the teachers couldn’t hear your background or your talking. My daughter loves to talk, the opposite of me. Talking wears me out. Now, imagine that the teacher asks you a question.
“Katie, what is the name of the main character?”
“Katie, can you answer the question?”
“Katie, my love, you have to unmute yourself.”
(I unmute the mic.)
“Can you answer the question, Katie?”
“What is the name of the main character?”
“No, yelling, Katie. That’s right. Can you say it in a sentence?”
(More frustration ensues.)
After the holiday break and at the start of the new year, my daughter had enough with online education. She didn’t want to sit in front of the laptop. She wanted to sit at her own computer to watch videos or play around. She had no problem with the iReady we had to complete every day. It was a program where we worked for twenty minutes on Reading and Math with funny-looking characters. She excelled at it. Math was easier than reading. It pushed analyzing of a story a lot which was her weak point at the time.
I had no problem with this change. We were going through a pandemic. People were getting sick or dying at astronomical levels around the world. Education was not my priority. Keeping myself and everyone calm and healthy in a small city apartment where the four of us were stuck together doing our own thing was my priority. The teachers not only added stress to my daughter for not going with the routine that she should have mastered by now, but they also added stress to me as well.
Teachers tried to use Applied Behavior Analysis tactics with my daughter for her to get with the program. I’m sure they thought this would work with the average Neurotypical child who is conditioned for compliance and submission. These tactics are difficult on autistics. Our brains are conditioned for anti-authority and equality and we assume that the person respects our wishes as we respect theirs.
“Katie, I’m going to tell Ms. So and So you are not behaving.”
“Please put the phone down and listen to me or you will not get a turn.”
“First work and then play.”
None of these tactics worked. I have no problem with rewarding my daughter for doing something correctly or kindly but I draw the line in having to pay her off to do it. It defeats the purpose of raising a child who does things out of the kindness of their heart or the logic of their thoughts. And since these tactics didn’t work, my daughter screamed out and denied them their wishes. She told them that she hates school. I didn’t blame her. I was hating it too.
Since the teacher could not physically do something, the parent had to move in. Oh, no. Now, I was the teacher and they expected me to use these tactics. At first, I did. I lost myself for a while. I said the script and my daughter refused me, too. I even went so far as to take away what she loved and focused on at the moment and told her she could have it back when she finished school work with the teacher. This resulted in screaming. Tantrums. Then breakdowns. I hated it and myself.
Now, I suffer from breakdowns. One of the triggers is noise. Screaming, its frequency. She started to scream, then my son came out and screamed at her and me for being too loud while he was at school, then I would scream. It was a vicious cycle. I hit my head on the walls and with my fists. I might have even loosened my retina which detached that February.
Our little safe space was poisoned. I never blamed my daughter. I blamed the teachers. The God damn teachers who came into my come via webcam and told me how to run my home and daughter. What kind of fascist bullshit was this?
I slowly refused to show up for her OT and Speech that the school provided. It wasn’t working out. Plus, therapy sessions were not effective online. Kids need the one-on-one. They need the proper environment, the school setting to tell them that they were in school and it was time to work at goals. The home is not the proper place for that. I’m not sure how other parents do it, but our home is a safe place for everyone. We don’t judge, we don’t force actions on others, we respect our neurology.
The main teacher continued to push us. Mostly, I ignored her. Really, what could she possibly do? She couldn’t come to our house. It was a pandemic. But she was insistent and I had to sit there and listen to what sounded like reprimanding and orders. I surprised myself at how well-behaved I was. I was so angry I could have ripped into the poor woman. I would have felt bad about it. She and the other teachers were only doing what they were trained and paid to do. That was their NT world and it was clashing with my autistic world. Plus, like me, they were going through their stress issues teaching online with their family bopping about.
When the principal threatened to show up in the online class to see how wonderful the kids were doing with this perfect routine (BAH!), the teacher confessed that it would be bad if the principal saw an empty seat on the screen. It was also bad for the other kids in the class because they might understand it like: Well, if Katie is not doing it, I won’t do it too, Ha ha!
I understood and we came to this conclusion. My daughter would show up to classes and I would turn off the camera. She listened to the class and when she wanted to join she could. And as time went on, sometimes she did in little spurts. She answered some questions when she was interested.
For the times when the Principal popped in, I logged out. No way I was going to force my daughter to play doggie for that time and feed an administrator’s delusion. Also, I didn’t want to get the teacher in trouble. It worked out.
Later I found out, even though my daughter was blacked out and listening to the class, she was one of the few doing all the work. I printed out the schoolwork and homework for her to complete during therapy after school. The teacher had to remind the other parents to upload the work, to complete it so that the kids can be graded. It was one task I didn’t have to scramble to complete.
It took a while, but I got them to accept the way my daughter wanted to work during this crisis. The last half of the year worked out fine for us and my retina was reattached.
In April, the Superintendent of Schools announced that the kids would return on a weird schedule at the end of the month. Kids would be divided into groups and go every other week, with Wednesday off to clean the schools. Regulations were in place and I was fine with it. We were looking forward to the kids going back to a kind of normalcy. I know my daughter was awaiting it.
The week before they were expected to come back (at which time parents didn’t have much information for the return like the bus schedule and which group the child was assigned), the Superintendent announced that there would be no in-person school the rest of the year and that they would open fully in September.
Why the sudden change? It might have had something to do with a survey they sent out the month before that asked parents if they preferred their children to return to in-person teaching or to stay home online. I’m unaware of those results but I assume a lot of parents were too scared to send their kids back. Also, it has been going around that many teachers were scared of the vaccine or they wanted to take an extended vacation (gotta use those paid days or you might lose them).
This abrupt change upset a lot of parents. Since the first announcement, they had planned to go back to work and arrange sitters for the time the kids would be home. This arrangement was not easy for a lot of parents but they made the effort to make the plans. Also next door in Hoboken, schools were up and running with in-person classes. Even other states have been doing it way before this.
So what was the deal?
Why was this district special?
Over the weekend parents mobilized, wrote letters, formed Facebook groups, and planned a protest in front of the BOE building on Monday. The Sunday before, the Superintendent announced that in-person learning would start the first week of May.
What was the result of kids starting to return?
About 20 percent of the kids in the district returned to in-person. They expected more but a lot of kids backed out at the last minute for various reasons. My daughter was the only one in her group, in her class that week. Another kid was the only one in his. Even my son who was in high school sat alone in a lot of his classes. Eventually, the Super read my mind and listened to the teachers who suggested combining both groups into one and having those kids return continuously instead of every other week. The schools with low infection rates complied. My son’s schedule remained the same but my daughter went back every week.
She likes it. She always loved the bus. She loves being in the classroom and being with people. Before they combined the groups, she was having a hard time being the only kid in the classroom, the only Atypical. Having the other child later lessened the anxiety and the constant focus on her. She even became part of a cliche of girls at recess. She’s at that age where boys are disgusting and she was stuck with one in her class.
Transitioning back was hard for her. She was expected to do a little work. She was also expected to be on the computer as if at home and join the other kids online for the lessons. It took time but she got back into a new, or old, pattern. I’m glad she is there. She has control of something she wants to do daily. That’s important. Control lessens anxiety.
All kids are expected to go back-full time this September. Over 70 percent of the state should be vaccinated by then and all restrictions should be lifted. Also, my daughter should be vaccinated too.
It was a hard time for us. I am glad old routines are returning. But it took a lot of help. I helped my daughter and my wife helped me. The Board of Education offered no help. I never expected them to be there for her back. Watching the news, it seemed we were not the only ones. In New York many parents were complaining how touch it was for their kids in Special Education classes. Autistics suffered tremendously.
What helped us a lot was the after-school therapy sessions. Every day, my daughter went to the center where they had one other kid. She was offered online sessions in the beginning but we all knew that wasn’t best for her. She needed to leave the apartment and the change of people.
Hopefully, another pandemic will not happen while my children are in school. Hopefully, the world will be more prepared but I doubt it. One thing I know, I will continue to place my children before any state system of uniform education and she will always have her best interests first: her mental and physical health.
© 2021 M.E. Purfield