• Alex Gerlach

Celebrating Special Education Day: Raising A Son With Autism

Updated: Jun 19

Every child deserves access to equal education and the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. In the United States alone, over 3 million children have disabilities that can impact their performance in educational settings built for neurotypical populations.


Special Education Day commemorates the first federal special education law, a huge step in protection for students with disabilities.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was signed into law on December 2, 1975, by President Ford. Under this law, children with disabilities were no longer confined to private or specialized schools and could attend public schools.

Jake on the train to New York City for his first Yankees game
Jake on the train to New York City for his first Yankees game

The topics of special education, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and learning disorders are close to me for a couple of reasons. Not only did I grow up with a brother who has autism, but I also studied to be a teacher before pursuing my path as a writer.


While studying to be a teacher, I took multiple classes studying special education and applied behavioral science. I even spent a semester working with a student who was eventually diagnosed with ADD.


While I chose not to be a teacher, I have immense respect for the professionals who dedicate their careers to helping students with disabilities.


But it's not my experience with special education and ASD I plan to share. In honor of Special Education Day, I’m going to tell my mother’s story of raising my brother.

Jake as a toddler at a relative’s house
Jake as a toddler at a relative’s house

Before having my brother Jake, my mother had limited knowledge of autism. All she knew was what she had seen represented in films until her own son was diagnosed. “The movie Rain Man. That’s all I knew,” she said in an interview.


When Jake was about two or three years old, he started exhibiting troubling behaviors and symptoms. He had a fifteen-word vocabulary and the expressive skills of an eight-month-old baby. After seeing a neurologist at Children’s Specialized Hospital, Jake was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.


My mom’s first reactions were fear for Jake and his future because back then public awareness was sorely lacking. However, she learned that autism is not fixed but rather different for every person. A spectrum. “You’ll never find two people with the same levels of autism.”

Jake and Alex at the beach together as children
Jake and Alex at the beach together as children

My brother exhibited multiple different behaviors over the course of his childhood and youth. He had a high sensitivity to foods which resulted in a limited diet of five types of food. He would bang his head on the hardwood floors and throw fits. My mother couldn’t brush his teeth without caging him to her body and singing the ABCs.


My mom was very involved, and she still is. When my brother was little, she selflessly gave up her time and effort in pursuit of creating a positive space both at home and at school for both Jake and me.


She took on the role of PTA president in our community for two years, attended every one of Jake’s IEP meetings, and actively communicated with the child study team.

Jake at a  Surfer’s Healing event for people with autism
Jake at a Surfer’s Healing event for people with autism

Whenever my mom talks about raising my brother, she always remembers to mention she couldn’t have raised Jake on her own. Armed with the famous phrase “it takes a village,” she always points out the importance of teamwork in raising my brother, inside and outside the family. Upon Jake’s classification, she immediately accepted help, recognizing she was ill-equipped to give Jake everything he needed on her own.

Jake participating in a field day event at school
Jake participating in a field day event at school

One of my mom’s biggest lessons from Jake was learning a different approach to life. Including forgiveness, dealing with people and life, accepting differences, being non-judgmental, and so many other things, “he has taught me patience, understanding, and empathy.”


Before raising Jake, my mom would have dealt with and viewed things so much differently. She emphasizes the significance of judgment and the judgment placed on children with disabilities.


“… let’s say for example a kid having a meltdown or having a fit. Are they tired? Are they just spoiled or what? And then you stop and think, well, you don’t know. And so I find myself doing that all the time, playing devil’s advocate, trying to put myself in somebody else’s shoes and trying not to be so judgemental…”

 Jake and I at a Yankees game
Jake and I at a Yankees game

My mom isn’t the only person to learn many life lessons from Jake. Myself, my other family members, Jake’s friends, and anyone he’s encountered have something to learn. That is the nature of knowing and interacting with someone with autism. My mother is right – it forces you to look at the world in ways you haven’t before.


In Jake’s final year of high school, he was officially declared declassified at school. Declassification means that the child's study team deems he no longer needed extra services at school, like extended testing times. This was a huge milestone for Jake and my family.


“It’s almost like the journey’s come to an end.” – My mom

Jake and my parents at his high school graduation
Jake and my parents at his high school graduation
 

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