Kindergarten graduation may not seem like a big deal, but for my son Liam, a non-verbal 7-year-old with autism, it represents a tremendous accomplishment. Last Friday, Liam donned a royal blue cap and gown, walked with his classmates and one of his favorite therapists through the gym, sat through songs and speeches, and received a colorful certificate of completion. The whole thing was done in about fifteen minutes, I took dozens of pictures, and I cried tears of gratitude for everyone who helped make this moment possible.
Five years ago, on the day I first sat foot in the Saint Francis Children's Center (SFCC), the idea of kindergarten graduation seemed impossibly far away. At age 2, Liam didn't yet have an autism diagnosis, but he'd lost all his language, he'd withdrawn from the world and his family, his problem behaviors were escalating—and I didn't know how to help him. I felt overwhelmed, underqualified, and totally at a loss for how to move forward. And then we found a beautiful, inclusive preschool that opened its doors to Liam and our family.
We'd come to SFCC on the recommendation of Liam's Early Intervention therapist, who taught at the school. The environment felt right—it's brightly colored, the teachers are friendly, art hangs on the walls, there's an enormous play area in the sunlight atrium, it has fish tanks, and therapy gyms, but still I wondered: was this the right place for Liam? For our family? Could he really get the help and education he needed there?
He did. It was. And I'm so thankful to everyone who helped make that possible.
Over the last five years, Liam's worked with many different teachers, therapists, and staff, and they supported him through everyday events like circle time and art projects, as well as special events like trips to nature centers, beaches, aquariums, and other community outings. They read to him, played with him, cheered him on, helped him learn play skills, social skills, and much more.
They let us bend the rules when we needed to—by allowing Liam to stay in his K5 class a bit longer than most kids, by letting him have his scooter in the gym, by letting us choose his one-on-ones—they helped us problem-solve ways to address his challenging behaviors, and they helped my husband and me learn how to to help Liam.
They created a place and a space that said: "We welcome you here. You may be different, but you belong here. You are important to us, and we are so glad to know you."
And I think Liam felt that.
Every morning, he would race down the halls, headed straight for his classroom. He'd grab his rug and a bin of toys and find a space among his classmates. He may not have been able to talk Spiderman and Legos with them, but he was very much a part of their class. They drew him pictures and invited him to their birthday parties. They watched him do his therapy and engaged with him in many ways. On the last day of school, one of his classmates, a tiny wisp of a girl said to me, her face all seriousness: "I am going to miss Liam so much." I had to turn away as tears ran down my face.
Liam didn't cry when graduation ended, but I asked him recently using RPM if he liked his school and his response was an emphatic "Yes!"
And so, I say thank you—to the teachers and staff at SFCC, to Liam's team of therapists who came with him to school, to the community of parents I've met in the last five years, and to all those of you who lifted us up, cried with us, hugged us, greeted us every morning, and were with us as Liam grew from a frustrated, confused toddler without a voice into the confident, happy, mischievous, curious child who has a voice and a community of people who will listen to it.
I hope you all have a place that welcomes your child and your family as much as SFCC did ours. And if you don't, keep looking. A community of acceptance, support, belief, and love is out there, just waiting to open its doors to you.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Images provided by Jamie Pacton