For the last few years, I’ve been teaching a Social Pragmatics curriculum at the small, family-run preschool in our neighborhood. For the first couple of years, it was a great job. S was a student there, and our expectation was that G would soon follow. I was teaching about social development, emotional regulation and solving problems with friends… all while using great children’s books to support the lessons. Life was good.
Eventually, S graduated preschool and moved on to elementary. Because of G’s special needs, he only attended the neighborhood school for 2 months. As soon as he turned three (and graduated out of Early Intervention), he transitioned to our town’s Integrated Preschool. There he continued to receive the speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and play therapy that he had previously been receiving through Early Intervention. The only one left at the neighborhood preschool was me.
I still enjoyed the content of what I was teaching… but in the past year or so, I began feeling ready to take a new step in my career. I didn’t have anything specific in mind, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to figure it out until I left my current job. So, I packed my bags and said good-bye to my dear friends Impulsive Puppy and Slow-Down Snail. (Don’t worry, I said good-bye to my human friends as well!)
I started putting more time into my creative pursuits, including working on my blog. I had a few pieces published on blogs that have a larger audience. After one such article was published (http://www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/new-normal/sitting-alone-hallway-challenge-raising-child-special-needs-jewish-community), I received an email from Allison Berry. Allison identified herself as one of the rabbis at Temple Shalom of Newton, a large Reform congregation located around the corner from where I live. She also identified herself as a fellow autism parent, and asked if I’d like to meet some time.
We set a time, and met for coffee. We talked for a long time. We talked about autism, parenting, Jewish education, and long term goals. Then, Allison turned to me and asked, “Alison, what’s your dream?”
Ever eloquent under pressure, I replied, “Huh?”
She repeated, “What’s your dream? What’s your dream for Jewish education, the Jewish community, and our kids?”
I told her some things I’d been thinking about regarding inclusion, social-emotional learning embedded in Religious School curriculum, Religious School staff training around behavior management…. that kind of stuff. Then, I asked her, “What’s your dream?”
She replied with a highly articulated vision of a social skills group, targeted at young children with autism and similar special needs, that would blend social skills and Jewish content and would take place in a synagogue.
I wasn’t expecting that.
I wasn’t expecting that at all… but it was awesome.
We went on to talk about an experience that we had both shared, one that we knew was common among our autism parent peers.
Where we live, choosing a preschool is a really big deal. I remember when S was a toddler, the question of “which preschool” was the predominant topic of conversation of almost any mommy-gathering. I even had a friend who made a spreadsheet listing the twelve schools she was considering, along with the pros and cons of each one!
When you discover your child has special needs, you also discover that he will need to go to the town’s Integrated Preschool, in order to get the services he will need. Not the school you lovingly selected after hours and hours of research and conversation. Not the school where his siblings go or went. Not the school where you work (in my case). Not the school that is part of your Jewish community (in Allison’s case).
It is VERY important to note that once G started at the Integrated Preschool, I absolutely fell in love with it. The quality of the program, the dedication of the staff, the knowledge of the teachers… unbelievable in every way. Life changing for G and for our whole family. But, I’m talking about the sense of loss, when as a parent, you are confronted with the reality of the new path you must follow in order to meet the needs of your very young, newly diagnosed-child.
I remember that transition so clearly. I felt sad. I wished G could come to the school where I was teaching, and where S was still a student. I felt isolated. Why did I have to start again in a new place where I didn’t know any parents or any teachers? I already had a community at S’s preschool. I felt angry. Why wasn’t life following my carefully charted plan?
In my conversation with Allison, she described to me another loss that many parents feel at that particular juncture– and that is a loss of Jewish community. For me, while I mourned the loss of enrolling G in our neighborhood preschool, he was still able to attend the preschool program in our synagogue. Why? Because I was the teacher. When I reached the point that I felt I could meet his needs in my classroom, the education director and rabbi supported my decision.
However, for parents who have jobs other than Jewish preschool teacher, there might not be an easy way to access the Jewish community. Allison shared with me that over the last few years, she could name six or seven families who had enrolled their child at her synagogue’s preschool, only to leave for the Integrated Preschool. Those families never came back. Not to the synagogue’s preschool, not to the synagogue, and as far as she knew, not to the Jewish community.
What a loss. What a loss to the community. Who were these families? Were they potential synagogue presidents, committee members, social action coordinators, prayer leaders? We’ll never know.
But even more concerning to me than the loss of these families to us…. is the failure to support these families at this important juncture in their lives.
I remember the sadness, frustration, and loneliness when G left our neighborhood preschool to go to the specialized preschool. A major source of support at that time was (and still is) our synagogue. Caring friends, concerned clergy and teachers, fellow autism parents whose kids were older and who seemed to have all the answers.
I fell immediately in love with Allison’s idea. Creating a synagogue-based program for preschoolers with special needs. Creating a place for these kids and their families at this critical moment. I loved it.
And not only did she have a dream… she had a plan.
Within a week, we had a meeting with the directors of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education (Boston’s central agency for Jewish special education). Within a month, the directors of Gateways were wholeheartedly on board with the idea. They were ready to commit the organization’s resources, time and their enormous expertise to make the dream a reality. Within six weeks, they had assembled an amazing team of educators and specialists to work on the project. When Temple Shalom Nursery School graciously volunteered to house the pilot program, the final piece fell into place.
It’s been an exciting few months. I’ve been attending weekly meetings at Gateways to help design the curriculum. It’s been an enormous learning opportunity for me, as I’ve been able to see first-hand what it takes to turn an idea like this into reality. We will be teaching about Jewish holidays. The first holiday we teach will be Passover. It’s very exciting as we’re drawing extensively on the resources in the brand-new Gateways Haggadah, which has just been published by Behrman House (http://www.behrmanhouse.com/news/available-now-the-gateways-haggadah-a-seder-for-the-whole-family). We’ll also be infusing social skills from “The Incredible Flexible You” curriculum developed by Michelle Garcia Winner. We’ve recruited five students for our pilot. Our pilot program (Holiday Detectives: Social Skills for the Seder Table) begins next week.
So there it is. That’s what I’ve been up to it, and that’s why I’m so excited about it. Next week, I’ll take that next step I was hoping for in my career. I’ll be helping to welcome five students to the newly-created Holiday Detectives program. We’ll be in a synagogue. I’ll be reading great children’s books to them, and teaching the social thinking and problem-solving skills that I love to teach. Life is good.
Thank you, Allison, for including me in your dream.
Thank you, Gateways staff, for your enthusiastic responsiveness, and your amazing compassion, skills, and expertise.
Thank you, Temple Shalom Nursery School, for embracing this idea, and for welcoming this new program with open arms.
Thank you, pilot parents, for trusting us with your kids.
And thank you, friends, for reading this very long blog entry!!