People often underestimate the amount of power they hold in someone’s life and mental health. They can, and often do, leave a huge impact, especially on young children. As someone who lives with autism spectrum disorder, being in the foster system was a struggle and a half. I had to lean on resources outside of my placements in order to ground myself and retain any part of my emotional health. I depended on my friends. I would reach out to my family every time I was struggling. I even relied on my schools and would often go early and leave late just so that I could relax. In fact, most of my relationships outside of my family stemmed from my life in school. All my friends, the first therapist I trusted, and the few teachers that were kind to me were there.
School was a big part of my life, and I counted on the relationships I made there. Unfortunately, even though it was technically my escape, there were so many instances where my schools and their staff failed me and my needs. On several occasions, I was brushed off as the troubled child. I struggled a lot with paying attention, and the classrooms were truly painful for me to be in. The history teacher was explaining things in ways I could not understand. The home economics class was disturbingly loud and impossible to focus in. The physical education teacher did not understand why I could not wear their scratchy gym uniforms. I see, feel, and hear things so differently from neurotypical kids. Wearing a cotton T-shirt and hearing a whistle in the gym feels like I’m wearing sandpaper and standing close to a train whistle for me.
It took a lot of intervention from my mom to get me the basic support I needed if I was to ever succeed in school. I needed an IEP, which is an Individualized Education Plan that kids, often with disabilities, receive to make sure that their educational needs are being met. When we asked for one, we were denied, even though I had a clinical diagnosis solidifying the fact that I had a disability and the behavior to back it up. It was only when my behavior got worse, and my mom refused to pick me up and take me home, that a meeting was held and an IEP was written.
Even after getting my IEP in elementary school, once I transferred to middle school, things were still complicated. A whole new set of school staff lacked the understanding necessary for caring for someone with disabilities. I had a lot of instances of miscommunication between teachers, principals, and I, simply because I take things literally. This ended up creating tension between the relationships I had with them and eventually led to an incident that was very traumatic for me.
I had a friend who would let me borrow her lip gloss every once in a while. One day, she couldn’t find it and told a teacher I stole it. Because they thought of me as a delinquent student rather than one with a disability, they ignored me when I told them that I hadn’t stolen it, and contacted the school resource officer. The officer immediately came up to my classroom, pulled me out of class, put me in handcuffs, and paraded me through the school all the way down to their office. I started to panic and hid under their desk. The officer continually yanked me out from under the desk and refused to call my mom. After almost an hour, he finally called a long-time family friend who was watching my siblings and I while my mom was out of town. She came down to the school to find me trembling in the office and crying with my hand handcuffed to his chair. I will never forget the fear I felt during that hour.
Finally, she convinced them to go look for it in my belongings inside my locker. When they didn’t find it, they finally agreed to look in my friend’s locker. In her locker, they found her lip gloss inside her pencil case. There were many other times like this that I was treated less than. One incident even led to my mother hiring an attorney and filing a civil rights violation against the school district.
Getting the IEP was crucial to my future, even though it didn’t save me from the maltreatment I received throughout my school career. There was very little possibility that I would have graduated if I did not have the certain adaptations that my IEP gave me, as well as the eventual understanding from my school. Unfortunately, there are fosters, people with disabilities, parents, and guardians who do not know the rights they have inside the education system. There are also teachers, counselors, and principals who do not know just how impactful having that help can be in a student’s life. There are programs similar to an IEP, including an individualized family service plan (IFSP), which focuses on the changing needs of the student and their family, and a 504 plan, which helps protect the student with disabilities and their education. Each of these programs offer incredible support for students who may struggle in a typical school environment, but they do not affect much if there aren’t people behind it who are willing to appreciate the differences in their students.
It brings me joy now to see that my previous school district is taking amazing steps forward in learning how to support those who struggle in school or have disabilities. They have taken plenty of opportunities to introduce training to their school staff and have learned to listen to the student themselves, not a student’s guardians. If every school district could do the same, I can imagine how many students would thrive rather than just survive. If you (a parent, teacher, or counselor) are someone who supports any child, whether they are in foster care, have a disability, both, or neither, remember how important it is to support them where they need it and never be afraid to fight for them. Take the time to do some research and reach out to your school officials. Have a meeting of the minds where your only goal is to support your student because that support will mean everything and, without a doubt, will make the biggest difference.