The Early Years
When Diego turned two, his development slowed and then began to regress. “He was no longer counting numbers aloud or saying words ‘mama’ or ‘papa,’” his mother explains. During a routine checkup, his pediatrician at Children’s Health suggested that he could be showing early signs of autism. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five children in the U.S. has a mental disorder like autism or ADHD. Only a quarter of those kids get treatment.
Diego is one of those kids. He is now in the Koala Club Program at The Warren Center, where young children can come for special therapy and socialization. Across North Texas, the Warren Center serves approximately 2,100 families as “first responders” who offer early detection and tailor a program to fit each child’s needs, from physical and occupational therapy to speech and language programs and nutrition and feeding therapy.
An affectionate boy who loves snacking, painting and music, Diego is fascinated by electronics and all things digital. When he’s upset, his mother has found that a bath will usually calm him. She hopes that with a few creative interventions, “he will eventually respond to his name being called, be able to follow instructions, will begin to talk more consistently and become more aware of dangerous situations.”
Diego and his mother have begun a lifelong journey of understanding. It isn’t always an easy path. The early years of caring for a child with special needs are a time of learning not just for the child but for their parents, full of barriers, questions and fears that other families may not face. Suddenly everything, from going to the grocery store to sitting in church, is a little different. Individuals with special needs also face stigmas and seclusion, misunderstandings and marginalization. The Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) even ranked Texas as 49th in the nation in terms of funding for special needs education. Even the phrase “special needs,” though useful, blankets a staggering variety of very different abilities. As a staff member at local nonprofit My Possibilities, which supports adults with special needs, said to me, “If you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Resources for individuals with special needs are strained. But there are parents working to ensure only the best for their children.
School and Sleepovers
Mary Beth King’s son, Matt, was born in 1983. He’ll be 34 this month and from 1986 to 2005 he was a proud Plano student, who made friends and gave hugs easily. He was also diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Slow to sit up and to walk, Matt remained in the early childhood program until he was five but by the time he reached third grade, the district had begun to include students with special needs in regular education classes.
“Matt was a very social child and got along well with his peers,” Mary Beth recalls. “The girls especially, always wanted to play with him and have lunch with him.” However, school life wasn’t always easy for Matt or Mary Beth. She spent Matt’s school years passionately advocating for her son and others like him to be included in regular education classes. Eventually she rose to become the President of the Plano ISD Board of Trustees.
It’s a cross that many parents across the country have carried. In the past, administrators have been wary of inclusion, worried that students with special needs may exhibit off-putting behaviors, or distract other students. Sometimes it can even be dangerous; Matt was not included in some science classes because he couldn’t tell the difference between chemicals and would try to ingest harmful ones. But when it was appropriate, Matt attended regular education classes with his peers. Today, it is legally mandated that every student with disabilities should be educated to the school’s greatest ability with non-disabled peers.
“Inclusion changes everyone,” says Charmaine Solomon, another mother of a son with special needs and one of the founders of My Possibilities. During her son’s school days, she recalls isolation, watching other parents meet regularly for lunch or play dates that she and her son weren’t invited to. Like any mother, Charmaine needed support, but found herself and her son held at arm’s length at a time when socialization was crucial for her young child.
“No one would invite my kid for a sleepover,” she explains. “So how did he learn to sleep over? He never did. How do you get to live away from mom and dad if you’ve never even had one night away?” A sleepover is a simple, basic social rite of passage. It comes complete with its own etiquette. But if something went wrong— “I don’t know what,” she admits—other parents were hesitant to take on the burden of a child who had special needs they didn’t fully understand. Both mothers are advocates for inclusion not just on behalf of their children’s development, but for the sake of the community where they have made their home. “It’s fear,” Charmaine has concluded, not with anger but understanding. “The argument against inclusion is fear. If you aren’t acclimated, you don’t normalize it.”
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Mary Beth believes that inclusion greatly contributed to her son’s development as well as his day-to-day happiness. But it wasn’t just a success for Matt—she also got to see his classmates accept him. Mary Beth remembers one of his friends in elementary school inviting him to a birthday party. He didn’t mind when Matt blew out his birthday candles. Another friend went with Matt to his first social and when Mary Beth thanked him for his friendship, he replied that it wasn’t a big deal; he liked Matt and besides, Matt was a great “chick magnet.”
Matt graduated with the students he had attended school with and moved to a program at Collin College, where he stayed until he aged out of the district at age 22. Today, he lives in a group home in McKinney where he rides along on Meals on Wheels routes to deliver meals—and hugs—to senior citizens.
“We feel he is happy and successful in his life,” Mary Beth tells me. “It’s what any parent would want for their child.”
The Whole Person
Like Matt, people with special needs age out of the school system every year. There are no more age-appropriate classes, no more lessons; the routine of school is gone. It’s as if when the school bus stops, the buck stops. An adult with a disability has 95 percent chance of unemployment. There may be inclusion in Plano schools, but what about life afterward?
There’s My Possibilities. Founded in 2007, My Possibilities has built a community where adults with special needs can receive what the rest of the population already gets: continuing education. From art and music to job training, My Possibilities provides it all. Eight years ago, My Possibilities had 10 students. They now serve 400 families a week because to them, it isn’t just about serving individuals with special needs. It’s also about supporting their parents, their siblings, their grandparents—their whole circle of loved ones.
“They are safe and loved and appreciated for their abilities rather than written off for what they can’t do,” Charmaine summarizes. Her son was among the first adults to attend My Possibilities. “We bring the community in and take our guys out into the community. It was the design of the founders that we weren’t on some remote farm somewhere. We wanted to be within city limits. Our people live here and went to school here and they deserve a place here. A space that is dignified, doing dignified work with community engagement.”
My Possibilities places their HIPsters (Hugely Important People) in jobs in the community with companies and managers who understand their giftedness as well as their disabilities, hoping not only to find them jobs, but find acceptance.
Charmaine remembers a young man they placed at La Madeleine, rolling silverware. “He had a bad attitude, he wasn’t showing up. But we came to find out that he is a gifted, talented musician,” she explains. “He wants to be a musician. Working at the guitar store would have been a much better placement. We’ve got to look at these guys and ask ‘what are their talents?’ We never consider that with people with special needs…You see this giftedness arise because they’ve never been exposed to it before,” Charmaine says. In her view, denying education to those with special needs is “handcuffing” them.
Some HIPsters will never go out and work full time, but Charmaine and her staff get them as close to that goal as possible, celebrating each HIPster’s accomplishments along the way. If someone is treated as if they have no potential, then they may believe they have no potential. Instead, My Possibilities looks at the whole person, analyzing their gifts, rather than their limits.
Whether it’s through providing speech therapy as a toddler or simply a student aide to help them through class, programs which uplift the special needs community can only boost us all up. My Possibilities’ HIPsters have gone from vegging on the couch with nothing to do, to living full lives as artists, musicians, stand-up comedians and more. This year, Ian, a HIPster diagnosed with Down Syndrome, competed in the The Special Olympics World Games in Austria, representing Team USA and came in fourth.
PISD also offers Adult Transitioning Services (ATS) at Collin College with very similar hopes and goals. Like My Possibilities, it is a community where qualifying students with special needs can continue to learn and prepare for life after school. There, with the help of experienced staff, they explore career options and receive valuable skills training— and even an individualized plan for future job placement in an environment where they can thrive. In fact, for 16 years sites such as Medical City Plano have worked with PISD as learning sites for young adult enrolled in the program, providing skills-based training and rewarding educational experiences. This year’s Leadership Plano class, the 34th class, has also jumped on board to offer their support. The end goals are independence, self advocacy and employment.
From The Warren Center, through public school and into the job force with My Possibilities and Collin College, life for a person with special needs looks just a little bit different. Parents like Mary Beth and Charmaine often find themselves on the front lines fighting for their children—and it isn’t just mothers. A local blog, Noah’s Dad, is dedicated to changing the stereotypes about raising a child with special needs and showcasing the joy he and his wife find in their son.
“People just don’t expect anything from these guys,” another staff member at My Possibilities, Lauren McCormick said. Part of her job is promoting fundraising events, such as the My Possibilities Community Ball where HIPsters and donors have a night of fun and giving. It’s a task that grows more vital every year. “But they surprise me every day.” Amazing things happen when someone—no matter their needs—is encouraged to flourish. Just ask a parent.