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School Can Be a Special Hell for Neuro Atypical Kids (But It Can Get Better)

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

When your child is acting out, it creates unbelievable stress for the child and caregivers. Will was acting out at age three when he attended daycare while my husband and I worked. We began hearing about some aggressive behaviors toward other children and teachers. Because Will was only 3, the impact was not as great. His physical strength and capabilities were those of a 3-year-old. However, we worried about it even then. When we enrolled him in a private, Catholic school, the issues progressed. During first through third grade, we began to expect a daily call from the school. We had Will evaluated when he was 7 upon the recommendation of his teacher. Now, this particular teacher was wonderful. She was earlier in career and quite progressive. She read a couple of books to understand how she could adjust to better work with Will. That’s huge when she had 20 other kids to worry about educating. Will was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which was a misdiagnosis or possibly a co-occurring condition. He didn't receive his Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis for almost another decade. It is a common misdiagnosis. Because they are both neuro atypical conditions, many of the behavioral symptoms at that age can present similarly:

· Tantrums, screaming and meltdowns/shutdowns

· Destruction such as breaking things, throwing things or being very careless with objects

· Aggressive behaviors like hitting and biting

· Stimming behaviors like fidgeting, picking, rocking and chewing

· Wandering off

· Difficulty following directions or complying

I feel confident in saying that my husband and I did everything we could to help Will. Once diagnosed, he started medication. We took him to a great behavioral therapy practice that worked with him individually and in a group setting. We attended family therapy to learn other strategies for parenting Will. But still the issues at school persisted. We began working with his teachers and principal to create the equivalent of an IEP plan. Because the school was private, they didn’t have the services available that public schools offered. Ultimately, we moved him to public school because private school just couldn’t provide what he needed without the funding and resources. While the public school was much better at working with Will, some of his behavioral issues existed for years. I often felt inadequate and responsible for my son’s behavior. What was I doing wrong? As long as parents aren't negligent, they should never be made to feel ashamed. While Will’s behavior was driven by his different brain, the world around him was not engineered for a brain like his. It took me a very long time to accept that a good part of Will’s behavior was the result of a neurological condition. It clicked when I heard a lecturer say, “This condition is like diabetes of the mind. Would you feel at fault if your child was diabetic? Would you hesitate to treat his condition however you needed to including medication?” This helped me quite a bit to release the guilt and shame I’d been carrying. That said, a huge portion of the world still seems to think that children like Will are the result of bad parenting. Can we learn different strategies to better parent Will? You bet. Many of the techniques that worked beautifully with our other two kids were simply ineffective with Will. We had to recognize that Will was different so how we interacted with him also had to be different. That is a lot to ask of teachers and school administrators. We did find that some of the teachers and administrators in public school were more accepting of Will. Sometimes, we'd find a gem of a teacher or counselor that was familiar with Will's condition and accompanying behaviors. Those educators will always have a special place in our hearts because of the compassion and patience they demonstrated.

As Will matured, many of the behaviors that caused difficulty for him and for us dissipated. Some of them remained and others morphed into different versions like self-harming, for example. Once we received his autism diagnosis, other things made total sense: his sensory issues, picky eating and anxiety all fit nicely into this new diagnosis.

School and the world in general can be challenging places for someone like Will. We continue to participate in his treatment as he approaches 18. But we’re done feeling badly about how his condition presents and done responding in ways that make him feel badly about himself. Treatment for someone like Will takes tenacity and patience but it can vastly improve the quality of your child’s life. He eventually stopped being the kid that received negative attention and started getting positive feedback. Ironically, where school was such a difficult place for Will historically, he just completed high school a semester early and with straight A’s. He has come such a long way and we couldn’t be prouder. Just know that there is hope. School may never be a place your child loves. But he can learn to navigate it, survive it and with the help of some special school employees, maybe even flourish.

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