Advocating For My Special Needs Child

By the time my son started kindergarten, we had gotten him off another toxic medicine and he started to settle in to the ketogenic diet and a new medication. His behavior began to level off and his seizures happened mostly at night. He still needed assistance during the day, special needs coming from a combination of seizures, behavior, and attention, but the district found him a one-on-one aide that could start the first day of school. Everything seemed to come together just at the right time.

His one-on-one was not specifically trained. I’m not sure she knew what the details of the job were before the first day, so we basically told her that she should keep our son safe, watch for seizures, and help keep him on task if he has a hard time focusing or demonstrating a lack of impulse control. After a week or two, we started to receive feedback from the teacher that the aide wasn’t going out to recess with him, a time where having a seizure would leave him most vulnerable. We also learned that she was making him sit by himself during lunch on those days where his stomach was having a hard time with the fat in his diet and he didn’t bring food, leaving him to sit at the end of the table away from his friends.

Instead of bringing it up to the district, we wrote a list of “expectations” with my son’s teacher and gave them to the one-one-one. She did better for a time, but it was clear that working with children was not her thing and that she was just showing up for the paycheck. There was no warmth, no compassion, and no attempt to get to know our son, but we let it go because at least she was doing something, and our son was doing so much better.

His teacher and the class aide also did what they could, but in a class of 29 children, my son could only receive so much special attention. But again, he seemed to be doing so much better, so we thought, between the teacher, aide, and the extra body that was his one-one-one, that our son was getting enough support because he was in school, making friends, and learning. Things were on cruise control, and we let a lot of things slide.

Last week, though, our son got sick. We already learned early on that epilepsy and sickness don’t play nice together. It was actually the flu that brought us to the emergency room the first time things got bad with my son’s seizures, and where we saw first-hand the increase in seizures that come along with the sneezing, coughing, and runny nose. This time, though, we had a good base of medication and diet, so we weren’t seeing a big increase in seizures, but we were seeing more attention, focus, and impulse control issues.

This happened to be the same week where my son’s one-on-one took a different job. I was told by my six-year-old that his helper’s last day was the previous Friday. No one told us (or his teacher) the the aide had left, so my son was left to find his way in a classroom during a week where he most needed the help.

The episode was our wake up call. The nurses and social workers told us before we started school that, especially with public schools that are desperate for funding, we would need to be our son’s most vocal advocates. But we got comfortable because things were going better than we could have imagined a few months ago. We let ourselves drift in to a state of dangerous complacency because of how well our son was doing and we stopped pushing for what our son needed.

I haven’t been doing it that long, so I’m still learning what it means to be the parent to a child that has special needs. It’s hard enough to watch my son struggle with his epilepsy and related side effects. It’s exhausting to think about the level of effort that will be necessary to stay vigilant and ensure he is getting even the most basic services, nevermind what he needs to succeed. But like the many other parents that struggle every day to navigate the complicated, messy, and difficult world surrounding a special needs child, I’ll be loud and fight for what my son needs. Because if I don’t, no one else will.

The First Day Of Kindergarten

Last week, we had another happy milestone: the first day of kindergarten.

epilepsy seizure first day of kindergarten

The week before, my wife, son, and I went in to meet his teacher for the first time. I left work and met my wife and son at the school…a big, square, old building with dark bricks and small windows. We walked through the tired playground, past the worn jungle gym, and up to the entrance in the back. I pulled the heavy door open, a door that showed much more wear up close, and we entered the lobby. The door landed heavy against the frame as it closed behind us, echoing against the painted cinder block walls of the empty school. We entered the front office to sign in. The dim fluorescent lights that hung overhead did little to brighten the dark brown walls and dark wooden furniture.

In Colorado, our son was in a new charter school, where everything was freshly painted, where the walls and the books and the toys were new and clean. When we came out to Philadelphia, he started in a bilingual French school that was small and tucked away on the first level of an office building, but that school was also relatively new. Those schools were everything that this school, an inner city public school, was not. But this school had one important thing going for it. It had the services that our son needed.

Our teacher came in to greet us in the office and brought us to her classroom. The special education teacher, who my wife had also spoken to on the phone, came to join us, as well. After a few minutes, the conversation went from pleasantries to epilepsy and our son’s history, and we could see his teacher start to tense up. She obviously didn’t get the message that my wife had sent giving her a heads-up, and she was slowly being squeezed by the overwhelming pressure that one of her twenty-eight students had such significant issues. Twenty eight kids with only one aide is daunting enough.

I took our son to the shelves of heavily used books and read while my wife filled in more of the story for the teachers.  We’re sensitive to have too many of those conversations while our son is listening. He could probably recite his history by himself, but there have been too many days when his epilepsy history is the only conversation people have about him, and it’s usually about him but not with him.

After a length discussion, his teacher looked less like she was ready to run away, and that was our cue to return. With the one-on-one assistance request, the shortened school day, and the other medical accommodations explained, and I led my son back to her desk. He reintroduced himself to his teacher, and she spent the next few minutes testing him on his kindergarten readiness…numbers, shapes, and letters. The overachiever, he read more letters and counted higher than she had asked him, although in all honesty, it was most likely because he has a hard time following directions, not because he was showing off. But she smiled and said that he was more than ready to start kindergarten.

When she said those words, it was hard to not be emotional. Since we moved to Philadelphia and since his seizures started, my son had probably only gone to school for a few months, scattered out around the times when he wasn’t seizing, or too sick, or in the hospital. He hadn’t gone long enough to develop many bonds, or to just be around other kids, or people who weren’t his parents or a doctor or nurse. In that moment, when his teacher said those words, there was hope…something that was so hard to hold on to in the last year. But here it was, back again, filling the room and my heart with possibility.

The night before his first day, my son was as excited as I had seen him in a while. We packed his clothes, supplies, and a keto lunch. Rightfully so, it took him longer to fall asleep, but he finally did and we weren’t far behind.

When he got up the next day, I was still at home so we made a big fuss, and a sign, and took some pictures. He was still tired…I’m not sure how much he actually slept the night before.

epilepsy seizure kindergarten

Probably because he was so tired, he had a seizure shortly after breakfast, something that would have rocked us only a few months ago, but he quickly recovered and went right back to getting ready. I had to head in for an early meeting, but I constantly checked my phone as my wife texted me the details of the drop-off and his excitement. He didn’t have any more seizures that morning, and he had lunch and recess with his classmates.

After recess, I was there to pick him up and take him home for his nap. As we started to leave the classroom, his teacher told the class that Junior was going home, and they all said goodbye to him as he left the classroom. “Bye,” he said. “See you tomorrow.” We headed out the door, down the dark, cinder block hallway, past the dim office, back through the heavy, brown doors and through the tired, aged playground. And the day could not have been any brighter.

epilepsy seizure first day of kindergarten