I can remember a little over a year ago that my wife and I were sitting in an IEP meeting talking to a “team” of people and discussing whether he should be going to kindergarten, whether he would make it all day in a classroom, whether he would be able to get through kindergarten and then on to first grade. There were so many things that made us unsure. His sensory issues were a real problem at the time, and I can honestly remember thinking at that moment, “there’s no way he’s going to sit during graduation, walk across the stage, and be still for the whole program.”
Let me explain. Most of you who have been reading this column know that Konner has High Functioning Autism. And, I’ve addressed in past columns about the sensory issues. Many of you have probably been to a graduation. This was no different than most. We were in a gym that was about 85-90 degrees. There were more than 200 people. Konner had to wear a cap, which he hates, and a gown, over top of a button up shirt and vest, slacks, and shoes. I’m sure the clothes alone were enough to cause a meltdown for a neurotypical child.
Prior to the graduation my wife had talked to the teacher and explained that we didn’t expect him to finish the graduation, and that was okay with us. So Mrs. Shari (Ashcraft), along with the aide Brittany Rothermel, made a few modifications. They asked the other kindergarten classes if they could go first to get their diplomas on stage. The other two teachers were very understanding and agreed. Then they sat Konner close to an exit in case he did get overwhelmed, and Ms. Brittany stayed right behind him the whole time. They walked down the aisle in pairs, so Konner had someone to guide him (I’m not sure if that was for his benefit, or just the plan, but either way it worked to his advantage). We did put earplugs in for the ceremony which seemed to help. Though he was playing with them some of the time, it seemed to give him something to do to distract him, and no one seemed to really notice they were even in.
Konner walked right down the aisle, sat down in his chair, stood back up when it was time to get his diploma, and when they asked what he wanted to be when he grew up he said, “An old man.”
He came right back to his chair and sat back down. He waited for everyone else in his class to get their diploma and then stood up for the first song.
In all, the graduation lasted 37 minutes (I know because I was watching the clock the entire time). Of those 37 minutes, Konner had to sit in his chair quietly for about 27 minutes, and I’m extremely proud to say that, with the exception of a few repeating sentences that most couldn’t hear, he did great. I was on pins and needles the entire time, and ready to swoop down and take him out if he started to get over-stimulated.
They did their final dance number which was the “Cha Cha Slide”, for any of you that know that one. This is where the guy on the song tells the dancers exactly what to do. At this point it had been about 30 minutes. Konner, instead of dancing like everyone else, began weaving in and out of his classmates who were spread out across the gym floor. There was a little redirection, but as he wandered from one end of the gym to the other, everyone just let him go. He then made his way into the crowd. He was working his way through the parents seated in rows on the floor, and at one point I thought he was going to head out into the lobby, but he decided to come back to his classmates.
Once that was over and they all returned to their seats, we had the only little glitch. Konner decided he wanted to keep dancing, and Ms. Brittany told him he needed to be in his chair like everyone else. He started to get upset and yelled, “I’m not done.” Jen beat me to him and took him to the side long enough to calm him down.
I sat their thinking, after 37 minutes, and this heat, confusion, and noise I was ready to go, I knew he was.
I can honestly say that I didn’t expect him to do so well. But I also know that he has come a long way in one year. This is mostly thanks to the great support team that we’ve had working with him. I want to say a few thank you’s now. Shari Ashcraft and Brittany Rothermel (and Dana Brooks at the beginning of the school year) have been great in helping him, and dealing with his issues. This graduation accomplishment couldn’t have happened without them. The team of therapists that work with him are awesome, including Lynn Bain and Krista Hannaman from the Gregory Kistler Center, his speech therapists Joe’l Farrar and Julie Morris, as well as, Ms. Sherry and Ms. Shauna from D&D Counseling. The staff and faculty at Panama School have been great.
Finally I want to say congratulations to Konner. I’m so proud of you and all that you have accomplished so far. Every day you teach me something new. I know that things are going to continue to get better and better because you are an amazing child.