So today was finally the day. My nerves have been wracking for weeks as I faced up to the challenge of public speaking. I’d been asked to participate in a conference on international inclusion, and as much as my instincts have me running away from such opportunities, I decided to follow the example my girl sets me every single day: I got out of my comfort zone.
The conference had started yesterday, but Pudding was down with what turned out to be a double ear infection, so she took priority. Spectrummy Daddy took today off work instead so I could still do my bit. I got talking to the lady at the table next to me, a principal of an international school. Before long she revealed that her daughter is also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and now doing really well- not just in college, but spending a year abroad in Paris. I felt that feeling of connection that we spectrum parents always feel when we meet. We’re never alone.
Part of the day the conference participants were divided up into groups to see learning support in action, but I wasn’t placed in group, so I did the “mummy tour” of just the bits that were relevant to Pudding’s education. I got to check out “Pudding’s office” which is also known as the sensory room. There I learned how Pudding manages her sensory needs in school (just the same as at home, really) and the awesome Ms. B reiterated how much she loved working with Pudding.
I had a bit of free time, so I sat near Pudding’s classmates as they ate lunch. The teaching assistant for Pudding’s class was there, and we’d recently discussed how she was hoping to continue as the teaching partner in her classroom next year. Not only that, but she was fighting with a few other teaching partners who also had their eye on working with Pudding next year! How far we have come, from schools that wouldn’t admit her and teachers who couldn’t work with her, to a place where she is accepted and loved for who she is.
Next I moved to Pudding’s classroom, where her teacher presented a slideshow of videos about Pudding and how our inclusion project is working out. The video ended with one of Pudding’s classmates sagely noting that “she learns from us.” It kind of sums up inclusion in a sentence. What this little girl hasn’t realized yet, though, is that she is also learning from Pudding.
One of my favourite parts of the day was the student panel. A group of middle and high school students talked about their experiences of inclusion: the diversity here included South African children on scholarships, as well as those receiving learning support. These students were incredibly articulate, and could detail the many benefits they received from an inclusive education. It was a showcase of all that is great about the school, and fascinating to me considering that not long ago some of these kids wouldn’t have even been admitted to the school.
And then it was my turn. I’d love to say that I conquered my nerves, but that isn’t the way these things work. I did, however, acknowledge those nerves- it is just part of who I am, and as I neared the end of my presentation, I found that the shakiness in my voice had almost disappeared. I talked about our experiences- both positive and negative- with special education, I talked about how this school had initially rejected Pudding for pre-K, our conditional acceptance into Kindergarten, and the incredible successes we have enjoyed ever since.
Everyone at the conference responded really positively to what I had to say. The director of the school hadn’t known that we were initially rejected from his school, and wished to speak to me privately. He reiterated that the school was developing and learning how to really build a community. International schools can only really do that when they’re allowing all of us to be part of that community.
It was time to leave, but not before more I met with more educators and faculty members who told me that our story further resonated because they too were parents of children with learning differences. We are all connected, in some intangible way by our experiences. Here in South Africa they call it Ubuntu: a philosophy that can be summed up by ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’ I think these international schools are going to be whole lot better because of who we all are. And including us- as parents to speak at conferences, and as children to be educated- is going to make them the best that they can be.