Published on: September 30, 2015
Hopeless. Frustrated. Sad. Inadequate.
These were some of my feelings when my son Hayden was diagnosed with autism over ten years ago. It was a terrible feeling to not know how to be a mother to your child. You worry about doing the wrong thing all – the – time. Or saying the wrong thing. When all you want to do is to help. Help your child whom you love with all your heart. But how? I knew nothing about autism except the stereotypes. Was my son now going to be Rainman? Forest Gump? I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was afraid – for him, me, and our family.
So what did I do? I pushed down all my fears and feelings and started to learn about autism. But ten years ago the world was very different – education and services for children on the spectrum were different. As soon as I told anyone about Hayden’s diagnosis, it was like giving him a life sentence. You have this so this will now be your life. But wait, that’s not fair. Why should his diagnosis be all that his life would be about. We hadn’t done anything yet. We hadn’t really started any therapies. But it didn’t matter. There was this path that everyone could see which was based solely on the label. But I didn’t see or understand the path they were talking about. And I knew we weren’t traveling on it.
That’s when I started talking with our public school, the one Hayden was supposed to go to when he was three, and this notion of a predetermined path was magnified. Here’s what happened when planning Hayden’s first IEP:
Me: I’d like to add some reading goals to his IEP because this is a strength for him.
IEP Coordinator: We can’t do that.
Me: Why not?
IEP Coordinator: Well, because you can’t have goals that are above grade level. I mean, we want the kids to be average.
Average?!? Are you kidding me?!? Of course, that’s what every parent wishes for their child – be average. This is what an educator was saying to me! I was furious! This is the thinking of the education system that I should put my child into?
Sitting at my kitchen table with my husband, I felt lost. We were trying to coming up with plans for Hayden. Contingencies from A through G – what could we piece together? It just wasn’t fair. Our daughter, who was typically developing, had every opportunity we could provide her with. But our son, whom we love equally as much, had none. No opportunities; just the lesser of not good enough. It seemed so unfair to not be able to give your child a chance, a real shot at something better.
I couldn’t reconcile that. I wasn’t looking for someone to cure my son. I just wanted a chance and an opportunity to help him. To see if together we could find a new path. I looked at my husband and said, “I’m going to start our own school.” He replied, “You’re crazy.”
Well, that may be true, but that’s how we started.
It’s been 10 years since The Shafer Center opened its doors. What started as a pilot project for Hayden and some of his friends has turned into a place where we build opportunities everyday and strive to help children on the autism spectrum grow their skills.
We certainly have come a long way from our early days. Now in our third location with many additional programs, one thing remains constant: it is about the kids. It’s with these wonderful kids in mind that we have updated our mission.
The Shafer Center is committed to providing services to children and young adults on the autism spectrum in our school, your school, your home, and the community. We develop individualized programing, using evidence based interventions and interdisciplinary education, for every aspect of a person’s life. By creating opportunities for success, The Shafer Center aspires to replace fear and uncertainty with hope and knowledge.
The heart of what we have been doing and what we plan to do remains the same. We want to help individuals with autism gain skills so that they can participate in their communities and families in ways that are meaningful to them. We want them to live fulfilling lives and be able to define that path for themselves. Since learning happens everywhere, not only at school, our programs are provided in multiple settings.
It is also critically important to us that we continue working with our wonderful kids as they grow, which is why we have made the decision to develop programing for young adults. We’ve started this by increasing the highest-grade level of our school to 5th grade and expanding our Connect XYZ Tutoring and Bridge Building programs.
This is just the beginning. Our goal is to continue creating innovative programs that will help give children and young adults opportunities in which they can thrive.
I need to say a huge thank you to my staff. They are at the heart of our program. Every staff member has made the choice to work with kids on the autism spectrum. They make the commitment every day to help our kids because they believe in them, know that they are capable, and love them unconditionally. We parents cannot thank you enough for what you do.
Dr. Christine Accardo is the unsung hero of The Shafer Center. She has been there every step of the way and her knowledge, dedication, and love have made The Shafer Center what it is. There really are no words that can express how much she has done for so many children and families. She gives them hope, which is the most precious gift of all.
To all of our Shafer Center families and staff over the last 10 years – Happy Birthday! Together, we have done so much in the last 10 years. I cannot wait to see how much more we can do, together, in the next 10!