The first day of first grade ought to be filled with happy anticipation and excitement for mom and child. But to a mother of a child with autism, the beginning of first grade brings feelings of fear, frustration, and tension. Among the myriad of worries is the concern over how an autistic child will react to a new environment, new friends, and long hours in school.
Daniela Cifuentes’ son, Gabriel, struggles with this neurological disorder-his brain function is severely affected. One of the things that confused her was that the symptoms of autism vary from one individual to another, meaning that two people with autism do not have the same symptoms-this is not a formulaic disease. Understanding this prepared her for the challenges ahead. Gabriel interacts with other individuals differently than a child without the disorder, and the expectations around his social and learning development worries and often confuses Cifuentes.
So how did Cifuentes prepare Gabriel for his first grade adventure? The first decision she faced was “What kind of school would be the best for my child?” The answer to that question depended on the level of Gabriel’s symptoms.
After months of research, Cifuentes, decided the best alternative was a Charter school where she could be more involved in Gabriel’s daily school activities. She also looked for a situation that would provide regular meetings with teachers where she would be allowed to have a voice regarding her son’s education.
Cifuentes learned early on that not just parenting, but educating an autistic child calls for continual learning about the disease, and she works with Gabriel’s school to help them understand this as well. Everyone has to be open to new ideas and professional guidance and always looking for new resources and support groups to assist autistic children.
“I am resourceful and always on the hunt for the best resources for what Gabriel needs. We not only needed to find the right school, we needed to find the right support group,” she said.
Cifuentes also studies Gabriel’s personality closely regarding how autism affects him and is encouraging his teachers to do the same. This study brings insightful observations that improve the chances for better outcomes. One thing she knows for sure: Having patience and acceptance with an autistic child is a must, given the fact that Gabriel’s development varies so much from that of other children.
She has also learned that it’s best to address challenges one at a time and is helping Gabriel’s teachers to understand this as well. She has learned that if she can’t resolve an issue at a certain moment, she should wait to settle it at a later time or day. She has found that with the passage of a little time, things work out-at home or at school.
Cifuentes now knows that approaching the challenge of educating an autistic child with confidence and commitment to actively participate means less fear, frustration and tension for everyone involved-mom, child, and teachers.
When offering advice to other parents of autistic children, Cifuentes likes to encourage them by reminding them that THEY are the experts on their children-no one else knows their children better. She wants every parent to enjoy the experience and not get stuck in things they cannot change. “Arm yourself with patience and expect success!”