My son, Ton, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at 2 years and 10 months of age. As any parent of any special-needs child knows, having a doctor tell you that your child has autism is devastating enough. What follows after the diagnosis, however, is tougher.
I was suddenly thrust into a world of research, therapies, further consultations, and evaluations, as I kept back tears and tried to stay sane and alive. One of the toughest journeys I have had to go through was the search of a school for Ton, who is now 10-and-a-half years old.
We had gone through five schools, and there are three reasons why finding a school is challenging. First, only a small percentage of schools in the country are willing to accept an autistic child. Second, most of these schools charge mid- to high-range tuition fees. The third and most limiting reason of all is that the needs of a child with developmental disabilities keep changing in random ways, unlike neurotypical children.
From my experience, “fit” is the most important factor to consider when choosing a school for an autistic child.
We enrolled Ton in MMCS before he was diagnosed because I was a graduate of the school and had a wonderful experience during my grade school years. Four months into the school year, however, his teacher voiced his concerns about Ton that pushed us to consult with a development pediatrician. Ton was not exhibiting eye contact. He was not talking. He “had a world of his own.”
After the diagnosis, the nurturing environment of Montessori, the flexibility it allows children to choose their works for the day, the playful nature of the materials and the careful attention they gave Ton especially after his diagnosis were reasons why we let him continue his first school year in the school. After a year, however, we were advised by his developmental pediatrician and therapists to find a more “structured” environment for Ton.
The Learning Center (TLC) This school was founded in 1975, so I was secure in its experience in handling all kinds of special children. I was also impressed with its strong pre-vocational skills training program as well as its employment programs for its students in partnership with the Autism Society Philippines, SM, and Unilab. But it was during my first visit to the school that I noticed that they were adapting the TEACHH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children) method.
TEACHH helps “individuals with special needs develop comprehension skills and understand the world around them in a structured environment. The innovative use of visual information teaches students to communicate with pictures and thus understand concepts more easily,” according to Landa A. Bautista-Abundo, M.A.Ed., executive director of the school. TLC's use of picture cards “helps address behavior concerns because it sets clear expectations,” adds Bautista-Abundo.
Because the primary concern for Ton was communication, we gave TLC a try during its summer program, and it did wonders for Ton's transition from non-verbal to slightly verbal. By the end of the summer session, however, we felt he was beginning to outgrow the picture cards system. So we made a very bold move -- we enrolled him in a regular preschool.
We moved Ton to a progressive preschool in our neighborhood after TLC. I chose the school because I knew its teachers and the method personally, having been a teacher for the school in the past. I knew that the predictability of the routine greeting, sit-down lesson, games/activities, seat work, and homework would be good for Ton. I knew, too, that the variety of games and activities used to reinforce the day's lesson would be fun and exciting for him.
There were clear-cut rules for classroom behavior, which Ton tried to follow. The small class size averaging 12 children was ideal for him because he was still not as verbal as his classmates. So the teacher could easily notice his nonverbal cues and could give him personal attention if needed.
According to Ellaine Castillo, owner/teacher at Kidsville, “the progressive method makes children with special needs more flexible to situations. It provides them the opportunity to explore more experiences like regular kids. They normally have a lot of fears. The progressive method helps them overcome their anxiety and makes them more open to changes.”
Ton thrived in Kidsville. He stayed in the school for three years. After the kindergarten year, however, we knew that he had to move to a bigger school in preparation for his elementary education. We felt confident that he was ready for the “big school” because of his developmental gains in Kidsville. So, aside from the fact that I was a big fan of the Montessori method, we moved him back to MMCS.
Back to MMCS
As a long-time parent of MMCS, I saw many children with mild autism, like Ton, thrive in a Montessori environment. One of the children was Digo, now 16 years old, who left MMCS after grade six. He became our inspiration for our move back to MMCS for Ton's last year of preschool.
Mara Mesina, Digo's mom said that she likes the Montessori method because it “developed his critical thinking and independence despite having special needs.” She also loved that the “teachers addressed a situation or problem immediately” and that they did so in a “relaxed atmosphere.”
We felt that Ton was ready for this relaxed atmosphere. He was academically at par with his classmates in Kidsville. His behavior had greatly improved since the last time he was in MMCS. His main weakness, I felt, was still his communication skills. After seeing children with speech delays and mild autism in Montessori blossom into children who develop friendships and the ability to communicate with peers, I thought that the effect would be the same for Ton.
But I was wrong. For his age, the expectations for Ton were greater in school. When the developmental pediatrician told me when Ton was 2 that Montessori could not provide the structure Ton needed, I didn't believe her. But this second time at MMCS, I saw it firsthand. The school, with its work-at-your-own-pace style and colorful materials, was like Disneyland to Ton. He played with the same materials over and over again. He refused to follow the teacher's lead to work on new materials. He couldn't communicate so he would hurt the teacher and his classmates. He broke things in the classroom. He regressed.
But it was not the system that was to blame and especially not the teachers who loved him and did everything to try and make Montessori work for Ton. It was simply not the right fit. Unlike Digo, Ton still needed a structured environment. The relaxed atmosphere just made him lose focus and see school as a playground instead of a place to learn. Sadly, we pulled Ton out of Montessori prematurely and kept him at home instead. The situation was depressing at that point until...
Our speech therapist heard of my dire predicament and mentioned that she heard of a new school in Makati that was promising. I visited One World School and met with its headmaster, Ericson Perez. The school was renting an old house in EDSA, Makati. The facilities at that point (its second year of operations) were not grand, but I was never one to fall for appearances. Moreover, the tuition fees were on the high side. But after months of agonizing about Ton's future, OWS was heaven-sent.
The reason why I chose to trust OWS with Ton's education at that time was the passion that I felt the entire staff had to make Ton better. After many years of trying to control every bit of Ton's education, after researching day after day on how to help Ton, after crying buckets of tears worrying if Ton will ever get better, OWS was a huge relief. I felt that I could hand over the reins of this part of Ton's autism journey to experts I could trust.
Speaking of inclusion as used in the school, Perez says, “one of our goals is to make sure students of all abilities -- including those with a wide range of special needs, typical learners, atypical learners, and those who are gifted/talented -- learn together. This is possible because our teachers differentiate lessons based on each child's readiness to learn, present levels of performance, and their interests and strengths. Our teachers also readily provide classroom accommodations and modify the curriculum as needed per child. The main goal in the classroom is to make sure each child learns, in a safe and happy environment.”
After three years at OWS, Ton has blossomed greatly. Communication skills are much improved, though still very much delayed and at an age four level. Behavior-wise, there are rarely issues in school. Academically, he is learning typical grade three topics. We struggle with the tuition every year, but we see why it costs that much. The teachers are highly trained, with good backgrounds and with the same OWS passion that I first noticed. Class sizes are very, very small at an average of six students. OWS was the first school where I did not force the right fit. Ton came to the school as a violent, hyperactive, and uncooperative child, and OWS found a way to make him fit.
While Ton is currently making great progress at OWS, nothing is guaranteed. Ton's needs may change. Maybe one day the school will no longer be the right fit for Ton's needs. That's autism for you -- what works now may not work tomorrow. So we keep moving. We are vigilant. We stay on our toes to ensure that the interventions we choose are the best for him.
Our autism journey may continue to be tough, but we will make sure that it's the happiest that it can be.