I went to my son’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting a few days ago. Just me and his head teacher. I was expecting an update on progress towards meeting past goals, which I got. I was expecting a discussion of goals going forward, which we had. What I wasn’t expecting was a word that appeared on the laptop screen towards the end of the meeting; a single word my turned my world upside down:
His teacher told me that she’d discussed the situation with the Principal, and they’d decided my son – my autistic seven year-old son who has only attended a special needs school – is now a good candidate for mainstreaming.
I’m not sure what reaction she expected from me, but I can tell you that I could have never foreseen my own reaction: I went into mild shock. I couldn’t hear what she said for a while after she said mainstreaming. The word on the laptop screen was stuck in my vision, and then I realised my vision was blurring and I was about to cry in front of her. I had to stop her talking (which I had stopped processing anyway), and apologise to her because I was still reeling from that one word. That moment, that M word on the screen, are imprinted on my long-term memory. The look on her face, the room all around us, the mix of confusion, astonishment… and just over-whelming joy.
I know better than to idolize mainstreaming (and I hurried to tell her that I don’t idolize it, I recognise its up-sides and down-sides). Nevertheless, it turns out that single word carries huge emotional stock for me, at a deeper level than I’d previously realised or acknowledged.
What “mainstreaming” means is that my son has adequate social, behavioural and academic skills to cope in a classroom with his same-age peers. “Mainstreaming” means, more significantly, that my son has progressed immensely in the past two years, and is now ready to handle a situation that we couldn’t have contemplated for him when he was five years-old. It means a shift in focus from teaching basic skills required to even learn, to being able to put those skills to the test in a more challenging environment. It means him being surrounded by children whose social, behavioural and verbal skills have the potential to improve his own just by being around them, whilst him having enough independent thought and judgment to not be sucked into all the worst that might also be presented to him in that same environment. It also means he no longer needs a teacher ratio of one to three students; that he has gained the ability to self-direct his learning and to follow instructions without as much hand-holding as he once required.
Mainstreaming in and of itself, is not a better education; I stand by my very strong views that education needs to be varied and responsive, and that one size does not fit-all. But the shift from my son requiring a special needs school, to being considered capable of coping in a mainstream school; that is something special for the individual child, and something to be celebrated.
Now comes the hard bit of course; the making-it-happen. Choosing the right school, sorting out zoning issues, transitioning, and ultimately finding out if my son truly is ready for this change. Because he may not be; I accept that possible reality. But my family – and evidently my son – are ready to find out. This is a new step in my son’s journey, and we’re ready for that part of his journey to begin.