Last week Benjamin scored himself a job as party coordinator for an 8 year old lego party. The guest of honor is the son of a school friend of mine with whom I've been recently reunited via facebook - and whom I hadn't seen in 21 years. She was using her facebook status to vent about her unpreparedness for her son's birthday party when I recommended she employ Ben's talents...and so she did...and so we got the chance to jump from 17 to 39 in one afternoon. Ben did a wonderful job with the party, the Party Boy was happy, the Mom was happy, the guests had fun and all was a success - but all that has nothing to do with what I'm sayin'.
My friend's son has some issues - issues which require speech therapy, attempts at special diets, navigation through doctors, IEP's and other such fun. So, consequently, did several of his friends. So there I was at the party supporting Ben and hanging out with the moms of the 8 year old boys. I was tagged as counter-cultural from the get-go when I was introduced to each one as the friend she hadn't seen in 21 years who has 12 kids - one of whom is getting paid to run this party - and homeschools. That little intro didn't earn me new friends very quickly so I was relegated to listening to them share their public school woes while intermittently watching their sons "interact" with one another.
Now, I'm no developmental expert but I'm thinking by the age of 8 kids are supposed to be beyond the parallel play stage - as least mine are by the time they hit about 2 1/2 or...1 1/2 depending upon the kid - and one of those at age 12 was doing a rather adult job at running this party. (But never mind that, mine are all unsocialized homeschoolers, back to the party at hand.) What I observed was that the only boys actually interacting with one another were the birthday boy and his younger brother. The rest of the 8 year old boys were simply engaged in parallel play - even when Ben tried to encourage them to share together in group games. They didn't make eye contact with one another, they didn't share and they didn't speak to each other except to proclaim loudly the injustice of one infringing upon the other's personal space. Even then they wailed at the closest adult rather than try to work it out with their peers. They all seemed to be sweet boys but oddly out of touch with each other and with their party manners.
Upon closer observation I guessed that at least one of the boys was on the autism spectrum. After listening to the moms chat I realized that at least 4 of the others (including the birthday boy) were, at the age of 8, still receiving speech therapy services - which probably indicates some larger problems at that age. So at least 5 of the boys had some undetermined level of special needs. I'm not sure about the other 3 or 4. All of them had been raised up through the public education system and so had the great benefit of inclusion with their peers and specially tailored special education services. (nope, no sarcasm noted here, move along people) Why, then, I'm asking myself, were they so woefully deficient at relating in a social situation? They were in the bodies of 8 year olds with the play skills of toddlers. Isn't this the exact goal of integration - to include children with special needs in an inclusive classroom setting so that they can be guided into normal, healthy social relationships? I don't know about those moms, but I personally wouldn't check off a 6-year gap in social skills as a goal met. But wait, maybe I should check their IEP's first - perhaps I can check it off.
For answers to these questions I turned my attention back to the moms. They unanimously agreed that the speech services their children had received over the years were inadequate for various reasons. The same held true for those who had utilized the OT and PT services in their public schools. There were scattered compliments amidst a general distaste for the whole special education experience - which ranged from IEP meetings, to general classroom teachers to administrators to therapists. One mom complained that she had even been reported to the vice principal for observing her son's classroom for a few minutes during her weekly volunteer day! Aside from IEP meetings, these moms have been left out of the therapeutic picture. For the day to day skill building efforts they relied entirely upon school staff and yet none of them expressed a whole lot of confidence in or affection for the staff serving their children. In Mary Land that is simply unacceptable. My kids don't go into a therapeutic setting where I am not invited. Consequently I now have some basic understanding of behavioral therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social skills development, hippotherapy, remedial math teaching techniques and my list goes on and on. These moms had...well, Nothing. And it showed.
If you haven't yet read my previous post on this issue go ahead and read it now. I'll wait.......done? Good...So, the part about the importance of the teacher/instructor/facilitator? This is simply a case in point. These boys are suffering from a lack of skilled and interested adults in their lives. This was evidenced first-hand by the moms' reaction when their boys were not able to get along with others - they wailed, they grabbed, or they just went off and pouted and the moms.did.Nothing. They have been well-trained by the school system to stay out of their kids' lives. As much as they whined and complained about the other adults in their children's lives they didn't seem to know how to fill in that gap where the other "authorities" had fallen short.
Sad, sad, sad - so sad to me that I found myself feeling insecure, angry, frustrated for these boys as this conversation with the moms and my observation of the boys at play wore on. The specific mechanism at play here was the abdication of both school authorities and parents in the lives of these children. When adults don't do what adults are supposed to do for kids, those kids get hurt. If they already have a compromised sense of normal they fail to be able to accomplish even the most basic of tasks. So here I had the perfect test case for inclusion - special needs children, trained up in the public school system, and set loose in an integrated, outside social setting. And I'm still sayin' not much to see here, folks.