On Monday afternoon, Peter and I were scheduled to return to the Autism Center to receive the results of Philip’s screening. Since the appointment was in the middle of the day, and I have a fifty-minute commute to work, I took the entire day off. And since I wasn’t going to work, I decided to not only drop Philip off at preschool, but to stay and observe in the classroom.
Last week I had written a note to Philip’s teacher requesting permission to spend the morning in the classroom. I wanted to make sure that my presence would not be disruptive. She phoned me a day later with instructions: I was to drop Philip off like Peter usually does. Then, I could go into the office to wait until they went to the classroom. Once Philip got into his classroom, I was to wait in the hallway until circle time. Mrs. P had even scoped out the view from the doorway and warned the teacher next door that I would be lurking in the hallway.
So that’s what I did. I handed Philip off to one of the educational assistants (Mim, who calls both Peter and Philip “Sweetie”). She led him to a chair in the lobby. This is where the students assemble in the morning. The EAs have learned that Philip gets along with Patrick, a student in another classroom. They try to make sure that the two boys are sitting next to each other in the morning. I dutifully watched Philip from the office as more students gathered in the lobby. Soon Mrs. P gave me a signal, and then she led her class down the hallway to her room.
When the students get to the classroom, they are supposed to open their backpacks so that Mrs. P can check for any notes or materials from home. The next step is to hang up the backpack in the cubby, take off and hang up the coat and then check in. To check in, they move their name cards to the pocket beside their photos on the “Who is here today?” chart hanging on the door. Once this is done, they sit down for a table activity.
This particular morning, Mrs. T, the speech therapist, worked with Philip and another student on their PECs books. The other students colored in a letter “d” as part of the start of a unit on dinosaurs. When the students finished the letter activity or, as in Philip’s case, finished a communication activity, it was time to pick out a basket. Philip selected a basket with small red, blue, yellow and green dishes and little plastic Stegosauruses in the same colors. Mrs. T was thrilled to see Philip sort the dinosaurs by color into the dishes.
Once everyone had finished the first table activity, Mrs. P turned off the lights. She signaled for every to raise both hands in the air and announced that it was time to clean up. The class joined her in singing the clean up song. Well, not Philip. As he has been doing at home, he started to cry when he heard the song. He reluctantly put the dinosaurs back in the basket and the basket on the shelf, crying all the while.
He continued to cry as they moved him over for the morning circle time. About this time, the physical therapy arrived to pick up a student from the class. Since Philip was scheduled for PT , and he was not happy about circle time, they decided it would be best to send him to the motor room. They showed him PT on his visual schedule and sent him next door.
As the therapist walked Philip to the motor room, I finally got to go into the classroom to take off and hang up my coat in Philip’s cubby. Then I took myself over to the motor room.
When I first went in the room, Philip was still crying. During the pre-visit phone called, Mrs. P had warned me that Philip cries a lot. I finally understood what she was trying to tell me as I listened to Philip wail. I wanted so much to go over, pick him up, and hug him. But that’s not how things are done at school.
Instead, when Philip is upset, they utilize various sensory activities. For instance, when he is getting a diaper change, they put a weighted blanket over his chest. They might apply deep pressure with a therapy ball or by hand on his joints. They may put him in a cuddle swing (as I observed during a previous visit to the school). Even on this day, when Philip rejoined the class for another circle activity, they put on a weighted vest to help focus and calm him.
On this particular morning, I got to see the physical therapist use the swing as a calming technique. It took a little while and some experimentation, but she finally elicited smiles from Philip by rocking the swing side to side.
The PT told me that she had planned on working on kicking skills, but she decided to show me some other activities instead. Ever so carefully, not wanting to have the smiles turn back into tears, she moved Philip onto his stomach on the swing. She then showed me how she scatters pieces of a puzzle within reach from the swing. Philip has to turn himself, gather the pieces and put them in their proper place. Apparently, he really enjoys this.
Eventually, Philip was ready to move on, so the PT led him to the trampoline. When he first came for his preschool assessment, he wanted nothing to do with the trampoline. On this day, I watched him willingly climb up and the jump as the PT sang the ABC song. From here, she guided Philip to an obstacle course of mats and benches. I wasn’t surprised to hear he likes to climb on things.
During the last few minutes of physical therapy, I got to see Philip use a motorized device that simulates the sensation of riding the horse. The PT explained how good the sensory feedback is for Philip and how using it improves balance. She also said we might want to research local provides of therapeutic horseback riding.
Circle time was wrapping up when Philip and I returned to his classroom. Students were checking the schedule to see which center they were supposed to go to first. Philip started in dramatic play under Mrs. P’s supervision. I was standing beside the Discovery Center, set up this week to teach the students about fossils.
“Who are you?” asked the girl playing in this center.
“I’m Philip’s mom,” I replied.
“Really? I’ve never seen you before,” she stated.
True enough. That was one reason I was there. I want to be involved in my son’s education. I want to know how and what he is learning at school. I want to pick up strategies that I can use and reinforce at home. And since Philip can’t tell me about his day, I either have to rely on the daily reports, or I have to see it for myself.
After the students rotated through three centers (Philip was in the art center and then ended up in the block center), it was time to clean up again. Philip didn’t cry during the clean-up song this time, but he did want to go to the messy table and play in the sand. I did intervene at this point. One of the other students had already dumped quite a bit of sand on the floor. I didn’t want Philip to aggravate the problem.
After centers, it was time for music. First was a song about dinosaurs to tie in with this month’s theme. Then it was time for a song that Philip loves-all about spinning. It was great to see him smile.
After music, students washed hands for snack. Mrs. T used the PECs book to get Philip to ask for cereal. By the time snack was over, students had to get ready for dismissal. There wasn’t time to go outside to play since everyone had to retrieve coats and backpacks from their cubbies, get their daily report for home and then line up on a turtle.
As the class exited the room for pick-up, I took advantage of some fortuitous circumstances. As luck would have it, I wasn’t the only observer in the classroom. When Philip and I had come back to the room from physical therapy, the preschool’s director was in the room. It appeared to me that she was observing Philip’s teacher and taking notes. I took advantage of her presence to speak to her as the students exited the classroom for pick-up. I asked her if there were any options at the preschool for Philip over the summer. She let me know that we would be discussing extended school year at parent-teacher conferences in March.
By the time I finished chatting with the director, the class was assembled in the lobby waiting to go home. I signed Philip out and walked him to the car. It was time to take Philip to Grandma’s house so that Peter and I could head to Cleveland.
As we headed north to our appointment, I told Peter about my day. The tears and the smiles. The playing and the learning. The successes and the challenges. The improvements and room for growth. About my observations of Philip and my interactions with his classmates.
It was the interactions with the other students that made my heart hurt a bit. Several of the other children spoke to me, asking questions or requesting my help. Not Philip. I believe that he noticed my presence, but it did not seem to affect his behavior in any way. Later on, as we were getting the result of Philip’s screening, the doctor cited this as just one behavior that warranted his diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
I’m not ready to write about that yet.