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You Don’t Have to Be the Same to Belong: One Parent’s Journey to Support a Son with Autism

By Nausheen Tirmizi

Have you ever felt completely left out? Fundamentally different from those around you? For my son with Autism, this was his reality for years. As he grew, I watched him contend with a desperate need for belonging. I asked myself how far we as a family would be willing to go to make sure he felt loved and supported. I wondered how far he himself would be able to go to find the acceptance he so badly wanted and needed. Looking back, I’m amazed at what my son ultimately achieved, and at the very real emotional and logistical commitments we made to ensure his wellbeing.

When I first enrolled my son in a San Francisco Bay Area public elementary school, he was assigned to a Special Day Class (SDC) for children with mild to moderate learning disabilities. I was told this was the best option for him, that separating from general education classrooms would provide him with the greatest possible support for his learning that the school could offer.

This never felt right to me. I wanted my son to have the same chances for personal development as his peers in mainstream education. So, starting in his kindergarten year, I requested that he be put into gen-ed classrooms. My appeals were repeatedly dismissed.

Nevertheless, I continued to advocate for my son’s access to general education classrooms. I argued that it was dehumanizing to keep him separated from all of his peers. I explained that my son would not leave his SDC classes and be able to live in an SDC world, and, what’s more, his neurotypical classmates would not leave school and enter a world without neurodivergent people.

Over and over, I made the point that mainstream education would be beneficial to the social and emotional health of not just my son but of all children at the school. Year after year, I was ignored.

When my son entered fourth grade, I became acutely aware of the transition to middle school that was fast approaching. He still wasn’t being provided all the opportunities he deserved. That triggered the first big decision.

I invested in private education for his fifth grade year. Rather than SDC, we arranged for a combination of one-on-one learning sessions, homeschooling, and small group instruction. Throughout the year, I watched him grow more confident interacting with peers during small group instruction and field trips. Not only was he flourishing socially, his academic skills were growing as well. He entered fifth grade with reading scores at the first- to second grade-level. He finished at a sixth grade-level. I saw that he was finally getting what he needed and thought, I could use this.

I took the results of his reading tests to show the school district how much my son had grown when he was provided with more opportunities for socialization. I made one last plea to get him into gen-ed by the time he entered middle school, but the district held firm in its previous decision to keep him in SDC.

The refusal left me with three choices: take out more loans to pay for one-on-one learning programs, hire a legal advocate to help me plead my case, or relocate to a district that would be more willing to give my son a chance in mainstream education. Given the challenges the district had created for my family for years, I decided that moving was my best option.

Through research and communication with other families in my network, I learned about a school district in Texas that provided more options and flexibility for students with disabilities. So, I packed up our bags and drove three days from the Bay Area to Dallas. Finally, I had found a place where I would be able to take what I knew about my child and have a greater say in his learning experiences.

Despite our previous school district’s insistence that he wouldn’t be able to cope with changing classes every period in middle school, my son picked up his new schedule on his first day in Dallas. He came back from school that day and told me, I feel normal.”

All throughout middle school, we tried a combination of approaches to make sure he got all the academic support he needed while also getting the socialization that general education provided. We tried pull-out supports, curricular modifications, one-on-one push-in supports, and several different combinations of efforts.

Over the next few years, I watched as my son felt more and more included in his school community. At first, he copied the behaviors of his peers in order to find acceptance. But pretending to be someone else gets exhausting. It’s no way to live. My son needed to let himself shine and be accepted for who he was. And eventually, he did. He learned how to relate with peers honestly, in a way that let them get to know his most authentic self. Through sports, school, and socializing with neighbors who included him in regular activities, my son connected with kids who had similar interests and who eventually became true friends.

By the end of middle school, my son was more social and confident than I had ever seen him. He made more friends and academic advances than ever before. He was noticeably happier and more socially secure. Finally, he felt that he belonged. I could tell it felt great.

Once his middle school years were over, it was time to return to the Bay Area, where my husband had been working throughout our family’s years in Dallas. I was confident that, during my son’s transformational experience in Texas, he had learned how to build friendships and peer relationships and that he would be able to apply these learnings to the next chapters of his life.

When we returned to the Bay Area, my son was enrolled in a combination of general and special education classes. He started after school cross country and track and field and once again found a sense of belonging through sports. Fortunately, he was able to translate the healthy social life he’d built in Texas to life at his new school in California.

Throughout his high school years, I’ve watched my son continue to learn and grow. Despite having understandable challenges during the COVID pandemic, adjusting to virtual learning and being isolated from his friends, he’s now back in the classroom for the remainder of his junior year. Like many other kids his age, he’s thinking about his senior year, getting a part-time job, driving, college, and his life beyond.

After my son’s incredible progress, I feel it’s important for us both to give back. My son is now in a position to help others who struggle to belong just as he did. Having been his guide, I’m now ready and excited to help families who may be facing similar challenges. I’ve seen firsthand the power of growth outside the classroom as a tool for supporting growth within it. This hard-won wisdom is what led me to my role at Project Wayfinder.

Project Wayfinder’s Belonging and Purpose curricula incorporate all that I wanted for my son. They help bring the puzzle pieces together — exploring identity, finding belonging within a community, and developing a personally meaningful purpose in life. I can imagine how much curricula like Project Wayfinder’s — along with the Wayfinder Guides trained to facilitate them — would have helped my son cope with challenging experiences (including COVID) throughout middle and high school. The benefits offered by this curriculum are what I would have wanted for him and what I want for all children.

Stepping into my role as Project Wayfinder’s Director of School Partnerships, I look forward to engaging with educators who understand that all students come to school with different cultures, backgrounds, strengths, and ways of learning, and that these differences should be celebrated.

As part of the Project Wayfinder team, I hope that the knowledge I’ve gained as a parent passionate about mental health and education can help school leaders understand the importance of bringing Social and Emotional Learning to their schools. By helping young people develop a secure social foundation and a sense of belonging, together families and educators can provide students with the safe and supportive environments they need to thrive.

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Helping Schools Build Belonging, Purpose, and 21st Century Skills since 2015