[VIDEO] A different first day: Starting school with autism

Posted: Sep 05, 2016

William O’Donnell, 5, will enter school for the first time this fall, an event months in the making

The fears that the O’Donnell family has for the first day of school mirror those of countless parents.

But they have another fear:  That their son, William, might escape.

William is autistic, and will be entering school for the first time this fall. There’s a promise of growth and excitement for the five-year-old, but also challenges for his parents and his school to ensure that he’s safe.

So parents Christina and Darrell have been working together with the staff at Gatestone Elementary, where William is entering senior kindergarten, for months doing everything they can to make sure he gets the education and integration with other kids that he deserves.

But there are challenges. William is a wanderer, so one of the most important accommodations his parents worked with the school wa to put bells on doors to try and stop him from running away.

Bullying, a common concern for parents, is another issue. William is non-vocal, and doesn’t speak the way that other kids his age do. That makes mom and dad worry that other kids will shy away from him and avoid him.

“We’re just hoping there’s going to be that special kid that wants to play with William and that can appreciate that he’s different,” his mom told CBC News.

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Up to now, William, 5, has been learning through videos and games on tablets and phones. Now, he’s ready to go to the classroom. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

But with the challenges William faces, there are triumphs, too. “For us the little things mean more than they do to the average parent,” Darrell said.

Once on a family vacation, William approached another child by himself — which was a milestone moment. “Most parents would sort of walk away, but we were sitting there, our jaws on the floor, pumping fists,” he said.

He hopes for more of those moments as William’s education progresses.

“Those little moments may be a bit more special for us.”

A true village to raise a child

When a child has the same needs that William does, “you need a village,” says Christina. “You truly do.”

Up to this point, William’s village included his parents and grandparents, as well as therapists and specialists. Now it will include people like Michael Castellani and Marissa Turner, the principal and vice principal at Gatestone school.

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For mom Christina, dad Darrell, and little brother Christopher, it’s been a team effort getting William ready for his first day. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

“[Marissa] has a wealth of knowledge that I’ve never encountered before,” said Christina. “They’re very receptive to what William’s needs are, and I think it’s very important.”

The school even designed a book for William, to help him adjust to a new routine and a new environment.

It features photos of him in the school’s “Snoezelen Room” — an area for students with special needs — as well as pictures of the table where he will eat lunch, the hook for his backpack, and even the bathrooms he will use. His weeks will consist of four days split between therapy and school, with one full day of kindergarten.

A different kind of day

William’s first day at school will still have the new backpack and sneakers he chose himself, but will run a little differently.

“It’s a direct hand-to-hand off at the beginning and the end of the day. All that has been arranged,” said Christina. “I don’t think we’ll get that candid photo, standing by the door.”

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This book was made for William by Gatestone Elementary, to help him prepare for school. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC )

They’ve been preparing for this day for months, and are nervous to how William will react being there by himself. It’s a different feeling than they would have just dropping their child off to explore and make new friends.

“There’s no ‘go play in the yard with the other children,’ because he can’t do that,” said Christina.

But like a lot of parents on that big first day, there will still probably be tears her eyes.

“Just not in front of him,” she said.

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It’s a scary time, but an exciting step for the whole family. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

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