By Mary Ellen Bogucki
As I see all the “Teacher Appreciation” posts on social media, I too share my gratitude. I think back to the beginning of our journey, a journey that began even before my daughter’s Autism diagnosis. I had planned to write this blog about finding educational success before I even realized it was “Teacher Appreciation Day/Month!” I wanted to share this topic, because presently, many people see my daughter, Bree and often can’t believe she has Autism. A big part of that is because they don’t live with her, so they don’t see her daily struggles with anxiety and OCD. They don’t experience her difficulties with change or her insecurities with friends and relationships. They may even misinterpret her processing delay as aloofness or even rudeness. Hopefully, they will see someone who is determined beyond her challenges. They will see someone who wants acceptance for herself and others like her. If we are lucky, they see a young woman who advocates even on her bad days, when she conquers battles most of us know little about.
So, how did we get here? How did Bree get to be “high functioning?” Well, a lot had to do with the therapies she received from age 3 to today. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, social skills training, and cognitive behavioral therapy helped her to overcome and cope with some of the symptoms that appear with Autism. Those therapies helped her to survive in a world that she didn’t feel comfortable or safe in. Those therapies helped her to be mainstreamed from Kindergarten through eighth grade with the assistance of a one-on-one aide. Unfortunately, those therapies weren’t enough, she needed more help! She needed compassionate, understanding teachers who were open to listening and to learning everything and anything about Autism. Teachers who wanted Bree to succeed and did whatever they could to make sure that happened, while she was on their watch.
It does take a village; you need all the pieces of the puzzle to fit, to see the true picture. When one piece doesn’t belong or is bent, it’s hard to see the true beauty of the completed image. We were blessed, from Bree’s first early childhood teacher, to her latest college professors, our pieces fit most of the time! Thinking back, I have to laugh; my first born son was totally ready for school and didn’t struggle academically. I remember all the other parents telling me, “Oh you need to request this teacher or that teacher!” It wasn’t something I really did or felt a need to do. That was until my girls entered school. Raising a daughter with ADHD and another with Autism, I learned the importance of the right teacher. That would be my first recommendation. You know your child’s learning style, their personality and what they respond best to. It is important to find out the teachers in your school that would work best with your child. Otherwise, progress can be halted and even lost if you don’t have the best teacher fit. You need someone who understands your child’s challenges or is at least is willing to work with you and the special education team.
There were a few years where I had to fight with administration, because they didn’t want to start a precedent. I understand the need for rules, but sometimes honoring a request that will continue progress and not foster regression, should be considered if it’s in the best educational approach for a student. Making sure IEP’s are followed and having a team working with you and not against you is a must. There were a few times that we faced a teacher who thought she knew better than Bree’s special education team, but then on a presentation she deducted points for lack of eye contact. Then, I began to wonder how much she truly knew about Autism or if she even cared. Sadly, we occasionally faced another teacher who would damage Bree’s spirit and then her Dad and I would need to rebuild it again. These teachers are probably very good at their jobs, they may have taught my son and I wouldn’t have a complaint. They are not bad teachers; they are just not a good fit for all students.
Learn what works for your child to find success. Spend the time getting to know your school and research what programs are out there, maybe even in other schools. Find out what other students with similar disabilities have been doing to be successful. When you have a child with special needs, many times other families become a wonderful guide to help you through your journey. I know families that move into specific school districts because they are successful with different learners. We again were blessed; our school district was able to provide the services and perfect teachers for all of my kids to flourish.
There is so much out there, that you just may never know about. For example, I knew Bree would go to a community college, but I didn’t know that a neighboring college had a Transition Autism Program. I literally stumbled upon it, only because Bree was a runner and our community college didn’t have a running program. While checking out the neighboring school for Track, I looked at their disability services, and discovered the TAP Program at Harper College. This Transition Autism Program (TAP) was exactly what Bree needed to succeed. They offered enough support to give her the confidence to increase her independence. They taught her those much needed skills to become a successful college student. I honestly didn’t know if she would continue her education after high school because of her anxiety and fear of change. Thanks to her time at Harper College, she will be going out-of-state to finish her degree next fall.
Recently, while looking at four year universities to transfer to, I learned about many different colleges that offer Autism programs and strong disability services. I am happy to say, Bree no longer needs those programs. Had she not spent two years at Harper College in their TAP Program, she would need those services. Now, she will leave Harper this month and be ready to attend a university without that support. Although she no longer needs the transition program, it doesn’t mean she can go anywhere and be successful. We took a lot of time to research the right schools for her to attend. For Bree, we knew that the smaller the school, the better. Her choice is a small school with a strong running program with understanding coaches, a school where she will receive a low student to teacher ratio and it is a school that prides itself in service. We found her next school, Tennessee Wesleyan University to be the perfect fit.
So, if you find a teacher that works well with your child, thank them! Learn what works and advocate for your child. Be a team player, I learned early on that it is better to work together than fight alone. Network with other parents and share your knowledge. I still send information back to Bree’s previous schools/teachers; you never know who else is in the same situation you once were. On those rough days, when you may be up against a brick wall, remember to keep pushing to find that hidden door.
Photo (Left): Bree with her first early childhood teacher (age 3 to 6) Angie Kiddoo. (Right) Bree with her 1st/2nd grade teacher, Kathy Krashoc and Bree with Michele Decanio and Stacey Watson, the Harper College counselors who started the Autism Transition Program (TAP). For more information about Project Tap: https://www.harpercollege.edu/services/ads/tap.php
Mary Ellen Bogucki is the mother of Breanna (Bree.) Bree is a twenty-year-old college student, runner, singer, special needs advocate, Special Olympics athlete and Global Messenger. Bree has been diagnosed with high-functioning Autism, OCD, anxiety, situational depression and sensory processing disorder. Follow along as her mother describes where Bree began and how she arrived where she is today. Mary Ellen will explain what helped Bree improve, along with some mistakes they made on their journey. By telling their story, they hope others will find hope and comfort. Bree currently is attending Harper College in Palatine, Illinois pursuing an Associates Degree in Human Services. She is a member of their Cross Country and Track teams and the President of the Access and Disabilities Success Club. Harper College offers a Transition Autism Program (TAP) to help those with Autism transition from high school to college.