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The Westview School Blog

Teachable Moments: Ways to Build Learning into Everyday Play

October 19, 2022
By Elisabeth Dawkins, M.S, LPC-Associate

"Fish swim. Birds Fly. Children Play." In its profound simplicity, this quote by Gary Landreth (widely accepted as the father of play therapy) says it all. Most growth and learning that a child experiences happens, one way or another, through play. Kids typically have neither the vocabulary nor maturity required to process feelings and experiences through talking, as most adults do. Their natural language is play; when adults join them and speak that language, we will see the most significant levels of engagement, connection, and growth.

WHAT IS CHILD-LED PLAY?
The benefits of play are nearly endless. This post will focus primarily on the power it can have in the learning process with regard to both academic and social-emotional learning. More specifically, it will focus on child-led play, arguably the most challenging kind of play for an adult to engage in. Child-led play requires following the child's lead completely, only stepping in when there is a risk of harm. This is the absolute best way for an adult to enter the child's world, and it can require significant self-control on the part of the adult. True child-led play means the adult is not directing, correcting, or asking questions. They are simply observing the child, reflecting on what the child is doing, and joining them in whatever that may be.

CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILD-LED PLAY
When choosing to engage in this kind of play with the goal of helping our children to learn, there are five characteristics we should look for:

First, the play should be joyful. This can look different for different children, but we all know it when we see it.

The play should also be meaningful, which will come naturally if it is child-led. A child with the freedom to play how they choose will only play in a manner that is meaningful to them. This includes sorting, stacking, and other types of play often considered repetitive or "restrictive." If a child is doing it, there is a reason, and we can do wonders by respecting that.

The third characteristic, which will also occur naturally in child-led play, is actively engaging. This can be difficult to balance when using traditional ways of incorporating learning into play, and techniques for supporting this balance will be discussed later.

Next, play for learning should be somewhat iterative. Again, if play is meaningful to a child and brings them joy (which it always will be if it's child-led), they will repeat it in some way, so this one doesn't require much work on the part of the adult.

The last characteristic, which can look slightly different for our autistic children, is socially interactive. This is not to say that all play should be socially interactive- children need time alone just like adults do. This means that for optimal learning to occur, there will typically be another person playing with and supporting the child. This can sometimes require extra work for the adult, especially when the child seems completely content playing independently, but child-led play makes it quite a bit easier. If you are trying to play with your child, and they seem to be wholly absorbed in their own world, join that world! Let's say a child has been sorting blocks for fifteen minutes with no end in sight. Instead of taking the blocks away and prompting them to make a different choice, join them in the sorting! Sort in the same way they are, sort in your own way, and maybe even combine some of their sorting with yours. When you join their world, there will be some social interaction, and the more instances a child has of positive social interaction, the more likely they are to be open to it and seek it out in the future.

Above all, the goal is for the child to be fully engaged, which happens much more easily if we are engaged with them.

MISTAKES AND MESSES
To introduce concrete ideas to enhance your play with your child and support their learning, it is important to mention two things: mistakes and messes. Simply put, they are both important aspects of learning and development, and how adults react to them can significantly impact a child's ability to handle them in the future. When we make a mistake and are able to remain calm, talk it through, and problem-solve, our children will be more likely to do the same. One of the best things we can teach children is the importance of mistakes and the role they play in our growth, and we can do that through modeling. Similarly, with messes, it benefits our kids to involve them in the clean up after a spill, modeling both regulation and the technical skills required for cleaning. That said, we all have different tolerance levels for both mistakes and messes, and those levels are likely affected (negatively or positively) when children are involved. Your ability to tolerate messes says nothing about you as a caregiver or teacher, and it is very beneficial to understand yourself in this area. If you are dysregulated due to a mess, your child will pick up on that, and the play will be affected, so only apply this principle when you feel you're in a good place to do so- no one is able to model these skills every time they make a mistake or a mess.

LANGUAGE SHIFTS FOR BIG RESULTS
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, and pioneer in the work of child development, once asked, "What is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?" While "what is already known" has great importance, I think most caregivers would agree that what we ultimately hope for in our children is the latter- creativity, innovation, and a thirst for discovery. The following phrases are small language shifts that can be made while playing with children to enhance their learning and encourage their development of things beyond what is already known.

"I WONDER..."
The first is not an exact phrase but a general shift that can be made. When engaging in child-led play (again- not all play will be child-led, nor should it be. These tips are specifically for when you decide to set aside some time to follow your child's lead), try switching some of your questions into "I wonder" statements. For example, instead of asking, "What does a cow say?" when playing with farm animals, try "Hmm. I wonder what this cow sounds like." This approach is because asking questions puts you in charge, even if only slightly. As soon as we ask a question during child-led play, we place a demand on the child, exit their world, and drag them back into ours. Switching to "I wonder" will still cause the child to think about what the cow sounds like, allowing them to respond to you as they please. Remember- our goal is to keep the child engaged. One "I wonder" phrase that can help a child learn to make predictions and understand cause and effect is "I wonder what will happen next" or "I wonder what will happen if you put that block there." These phrases are great because they invite the child to consider what consequences their actions will have and allow them to decide what to do from there. "If you put that block there, I think the tower will fall over," while likely well-intended,  ultimately takes away an opportunity for the child to learn from a mistake, and they are likely to make that mistake again in the future.

"WHAT'S YOUR PLAN?"
"What are you doing?" Depending on how it is asked, this question can have many different meanings, only one of which is actually wondering what the other person is doing. The truth is if we ask someone what they're doing while in their presence, we can typically see exactly what they are doing, and we are actually either wondering why they're doing it or wanting them to stop doing it. Because of this, it often has a negative connotation. A switch to make when playing is "What's your plan?" This removes the blaming tone and makes the question a little more collaborative. Additionally, it might help the child stop and think about their plan.

"BECAUSE I SAID SO."
The final switch to be discussed is the classic line, "Because I said so." There are variations of this line, such as "Because I'm an adult," "Just do it because I asked you," and so on. While many of us likely only use this when we feel frustrated, it is important to consider the message this sends, especially for our autistic children. Because they are often taught using compliance-based practices, it is crucial that we help them understand why they are being asked to do certain things. The goal should be to help these kids learn to advocate for themselves and speak up when something doesn't feel good or right to them. The more we can explain to them why they are being asked to do things, the stronger their sense of self will be, and they become less likely to follow along with things simply because an adult "said so."

DIFFERENT TYPES OF PLAY
Finally, let's explore different types of play and the learning opportunities that come with them. First, and understanding your personal tolerance for messes can be important here, is sensory play. Think sand, water tables, shaving cream, etc. Depending on the child's age, the benefits of sensory play vary greatly. For young children, it can help them discover their own sensory preferences and supports early exploration of the world around them by helping them become familiar with different materials. You can help them explore science concepts such as gravity and volume as they get older. It can also assist in developing motor skills such as digging and pouring.

Dress-up and role play provide opportunities for children to be silly and creative, but they also support children in making sense of the world around them. A common example is children who are nervous about going to the doctor or the dentist wanting to play doctor and act out what is going to happen to them. A more concrete skill that is developed through this kind of play is the technical skill of getting dressed.

Building things with blocks, LEGOs, Magnatiles, etc., helps to encourage problem-solving, spatial thinking, and logical reasoning. When we allow our children to make mistakes and struggle to figure out how to make the tower taller, we help them develop the abovementioned skills.

Outside play has many benefits. It gives children the space to explore, take risks, and increase their resilience. Gross motor skills such as running, jumping, skipping, and climbing can also be practiced during outdoor play. There are also many opportunities to explore earth science and biology concepts using natural surroundings and to teach respect for the environment.

Cooking is another wonderful learning opportunity. Many math and science concepts can be incorporated, including measurement, addition, and reactions. It fosters independence when a child can help out in the kitchen and is an opportunity to practice important safety skills (think knives and hot stoves). We can develop in children a deeper appreciation for food and how it's made so they better understand the work that goes into every meal and snack they eat. Research also shows that involving children in meal preparation can significantly reduce picky eating.

There are infinite ways to enjoy playing with your child, and only a handful are listed above. It is important to remember that children will learn facts and academic skills in their classrooms, among other things. When given the privilege of entering your child's world through play, enjoy being there, and try not to worry about teaching them academics in that setting. You can support them in developing their confidence, resilience, and creativity by using some of the techniques discussed in this post. Above all, know that one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is simply being with them, and that alone will have a significant positive impact. 
 

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Elisabeth Dawkins, M.S, LPC-Associate is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Associate training in Clinical Play Therapy at The Stewart Center at The Westview School. She received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, and her M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas. She has previously worked as an Upper Elementary teacher at The Westview School from 2016  to 2020. Elisabeth is a certified provider of DIRFloortime®. If you or your family are interested in learning more about the services The Stewart Center provides, visit us online at The Stewart Center

This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, October 6, 2022. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2022/2023 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.

Executive Functioning: Air Traffic Control for Your Brain!

September 15, 2022
By Dr. Natalie Montfort

Do you know people in your home or classroom who always lose their belongings, forget important items, get lost from the kitchen to the bedroom, run chronically late, or just generally seem like a "mess?" Weak executive functioning could be to blame!

Executive functioning is a general term that refers to our mind’s mental manager or the cognitive processes that regulate our thinking and behavior. While there are many models of executive functioning, most include the individual’s ability to generate ideas, initiate or begin a task, stick to and finish a task, flexibly problem-solve, shift from one idea or topic to another, inhibit our impulses, ignore distractions, regulate attention, regulate our behavioral and emotional responses, use feedback to guide future behavior, select relevant goals, organize materials, hold information in mind until needed, and more. I like to think of our executive functions as air-traffic control for our brain or as the conductor of the mind’s orchestra.

When all is well, cognitive processes flow smoothly, and behavior fits the situation as expected. When there are problems… well, just imagine the airport with poor air-traffic control! Executive functioning is needed for all aspects of life. Socially, we need executive functioning to help us regulate our behavior and emotions when we are upset. After all, throwing the board game when we are losing is frowned upon…, particularly in adolescence or adulthood! We spend a great portion of time controlling our impulses to speak out in school or a meeting, to refrain from spending too much money, or even overeating. Executive functions help us to arrive on time, prepared, and with a plan for how to behave. They are also critically important for academic success. Not only are executive functions needed for decoding written text, reading comprehension, solving math word problems, and long division, but they are also needed to be an organized, efficient student who remembers homework and can plan for projects and tests. These days, if you are not in the right place, with the right things, at the right time, it is difficult to be a good student, no matter how bright you are! In fact, being in the right place, with the right things, at the right time is the very basis of holding a job.

When there is executive disfunctioning, life may feel chaotic or unproductive. The child or adult may experience social, academic, or employment difficulties and/or problems in the home. The good news is that executive functions are thought to be able to be developed or strengthened. These skills begin developing in infancy as babies learn to wait to have their needs met. They really come ‘on board’ in the brain around age two as children learn they are active agents in their own world. Beyond that age, executive functions are thought to keep developing into young adulthood. Just as they can be strengthened, executive functions can be weakened or damaged. Neurological insults from accidents, injuries, or other sources can impact executive functioning temporarily or long-term.

Executive dysfunction is often part of the presentation of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Specific Learning Disabilities. Although executive functioning is thought to be the most impaired in the aforementioned conditions, it is also implicated in conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even medical conditions such as low blood sugar. Problems with executive functioning are often what bring families to seek help from psychologists, psychiatrists, or doctors.

Understanding the importance of executive functioning is the first step to facilitating its development. The ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ principle applies here. If a child has no experience planning for their day or organizing their materials, it is unlikely that he or she will simply arrive at this skill in high school.

 

From the time they are small, children should be encouraged to help with planning and organizing. A toddler may not be able to make a sandwich, but they can help pack a lunch. Likewise, a young child who cannot do their own laundry can sort laundry or help pick out clean clothes for tomorrow.

 

Children can also help with the planning and preparation for parties, events, and projects. Learning how to react when what we want is not available, what to do when we forget something important, and how to persist with the temptation of distractions are all valuable skills that adults need to afford children. Children can have fun while they help adults with household tasks and learn these skills. They can also work on these skills in their play.

Childhood games have been shown to improve the executive skills of preschool children. Games such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Mother May I all help children to practice attending, inhibiting impulses, problem-solving, regulating behavior, and regulating emotions. For older children, yard games such as Freeze Tag and Capture the Flag can be helpful. Board games are also great ways to develop flexibility, inhibition, problem-solving, and shifting. Some favorites for young children are Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. These games are great for teaching flexible thinking by changing the rules. Some fun examples are to play the board backward or try to be the last one to cross the finish line! For older children, strategy games such as chess, Chinese checkers, or Risk may be helpful. Children and adults also tend to enjoy German-style or Euro board games. These games tend to minimize conflict and luck and emphasize problem-solving strategies. Some popular examples are Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Small World, and Dominion. These games require planning, problem-solving, shifting strategies, and many other executive functions to master despite relatively easy gameplay and moderate playing times.

In addition to practicing executive functioning skills throughout life, accommodations and supports for weak executive functioning are often helpful. For example, making lists, using sticky-note reminders, using alarms, and having organizational systems in place can help support executive functioning skills. There are several books available with excellent strategies for support. Some of my favorites are: Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare; The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross Greene, PhD; and The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes by Jennifer Cook O'Toole.

Executive functioning skills take effort and experience to develop over time. Many services and providers exist for families requiring guidance to facilitate growth in their loved one’s executive functioning. The Stewart Center at The Westview School offers individual therapy to facilitate executive functioning in adolescents and adults, group therapy for fun skill-building in children, as well as parent coaching and case management to assist families in promoting these skills in their daily lives at home. For more information, contact 713-973-1842 or info@stewartcenterhouston.org.

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Dr. Natalie Montfort is a licensed clinical psychologist with Montfort Psychology Associates. Dr. Montfort has over 20 years of experience working with children and adults with ASD and has training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (with children, adolescents, and adults), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Relationship Development Intervention, Social Thinking, behavior modification (including Applied Behavior Analysis), and education/educational assessment.  Dr. Montfort graduated summa cum laude and as valedictorian of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. She earned a Master of Arts Degree and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Clinical Psychology from Fielding Graduate University. Dr. Montfort completed her doctoral internship with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and her post-doctoral fellowship at The Stewart Center at The Westview School. She obtained licensure as a Clinical Psychologist in 2016, and she and Dr. Ken Montfort launched Montfort Psychology Associates in 2020.  Her areas of interest include assessment of children, adolescents, and adults; cognitive and behavioral differences in children with neurodevelopmental disorders; treatment of adoption-related issues; treatment of childhood trauma; and animal-assisted therapy. She also enjoys providing professional development, trainings, and lectures on these and other topics to a wide variety of audiences.

This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, September 1, 2022. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2022/2023 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.

In the Words of a Mother

May 05, 2022
By Catherine Winship

As we pause to celebrate our Westview moms and recognize all mothers on this weekend’s national holiday, we are thankful to one of our own, Catherine Winship, mom to Upper Elementary student, Joe, who in her own words, offers an honest and reflective post on motherhood and how profoundly it teaches, grows and changes us all – both child and mother.

The day is approaching when the world reminds us that it’s time to stop and recognize those that rarely stop at all, those whose tasks are often carried out under the radar where recognition doesn’t reside. Regardless of how many children call us “Mom,” the title is great. Mother’s Day is a day that invites us to pause and reflect on what “Mom” really means, and how it manifests in that one person in our lives. Love, faithfulness, and patience dominate the words of greeting cards on this day, and rightly so! But what the greeting cards don’t often address are the ones that call us mom. Our children give us this title, and in doing so take us on a journey into the depths of our own souls. What we discover there may never have been unearthed if not for our kids. We are considered the teachers, but I would argue a reversed truth - our children are our greatest teachers.

All children bring with them a myriad of experiences that inevitably become a mother’s own reality. Kids grow and change with every day that passes and we, as their mothers, do the same. Their gifts, talents, passions, and challenges pave the path that we join them on. We are intrinsically intertwined with our children and that bond is steadfast. We may have ideas or ideals about what we think our children should be, but the greatest irony of being a mother is learning that control is most often an illusion. This brings me to those moms that have so deeply learned this lesson - those that have children who don’t fall into the neat box that the world has drawn in permanent marker. Undoubtedly, for every mom in this position, this absence of control was felt with all of their mind, body, and soul - likely one of the most all-consuming lessons of their life.

BUT...

Moms may not be able to control everything, we may not have chosen to write our story as it has been written, and what a gift that is! The result is the fulfillment of, with the greatest magnitude and intensity, everything it is to be a mother. Our kids that exist outside the lines, take our hands and show us how full those words on the greeting cards can be. We get motherhood bigger, stronger, richer, and deeper. What is life about if not experiencing a love that grows and changes us, a love that writes its own story and takes us to places we never thought we would go? How perfect the story is, how vital the characters are!

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Catherine Winship has been a Westview parent since August of 2015. Catherine writes and hosts a blog called One Autism Experience where she shares her family's personal experiences navigating the world of autism.  

Autism at Work: A Look at Neurodiversity in the Workplace

April 26, 2022
By Sarah Chauvin

A recent Facebook post from Westview parent Rex Burch, a Houston attorney, touting the benefits of hiring a former Westview student at his law firm:  

“Some of you know that we hired a Westview graduate at my law firm a few years back. Ryan is still with us and is doing great work. In his areas (data entry and manipulation), he’s the best we have. He has really settled in, and everyone likes him. If you're in a hiring position, I encourage you to consider a Westview grad. We’re extremely lucky to have Ryan.”

Ryan Malik was a student at The Westview School from preschool until sixth grade. After transitioning to homeschool for his remaining middle school and high school years, Ryan enrolled at the University of Houston and began working towards a bachelor's degree in cultural humanities. Ryan returned to The Westview School in 2018 and worked as a psychology practicum student at The Stewart Center through the end of the 2019 academic school year.

When asked about his time as a student at Westview, Ryan remembers how accommodating Westview was for kids with autism. “[Westview] was quiet and nice. So many other schools demand you learn in a specific way, and the atmosphere is very different [at Westview].“ A typical school seemed chaotic and overwhelming to Ryan, but Westview “felt calming.“

Finding employment is a challenge for many young adults, autism or not, and Ryan was looking for work post his internship with The Stewart Center. One way that Ryan helped position himself for employability is that he took online courses via LinkedIn. This self-paced learning on how to use Microsoft Word and Excel gave Ryan a strong set of skills to bring to his next job. "I know so much about how to work Excel and Word," said Ryan. Ryan describes sometimes losing interest and lacking motivation in certain subjects, but he had found something that interested him, he excelled at, and he was able to focus on. When he started looking for a new place to work, he had a high level of self-taught skills to bring with him.

"Dr. [Natalie] Montfort approached me about Rex [Burch] looking for someone to do data entry at his law firm," said Ryan. "I said 'yes,' quickly to the opportunity." Three years later, Ryan is still there and enjoying his job. And according to Rex Burch, Ryan is a key member of Bruckner Burch Law Firm. 

Ryan’s daily job tasks at Bruckner Burch vary, but a typical day will find him answering incoming calls, taking messages, and transferring calls to the paralegals. He will sometimes pick up the mail, but Ryan’s primary function is data entry.

“We have hired lots of people at this firm who have done data entry. [Data entry] is a very valuable job in many organizations - law firms in particular.” Rex had high praise for Ryan’s data entry skills and his contribution to Bruckner Burch: “Ryan is the best. It’s not that he keeps pace with everyone else. He is the best.”

Rex added that Ryan is no different from any other employee at the office. “The only ‘support’ that Ryan receives that other employees don’t is that we bring him back and forth to work daily in an Uber or Lyft,“ said Rex. “Once he is at the office, no other support is required.“

Ryan and Rex communicate very well with each other. Rex shared, “One of the things Ryan understands is if I say do ‘this,’ I mean you should do it exactly like ‘this.’” Rex confessed that a big problem at work is when he instructs people to “do this“ they may think what he means is “do that.“ Rex said, “That’s not a problem I ever have with Ryan.“

“Once I know what I am supposed to do,“ said Ryan, “I follow it to the letter.“ When discussing his strength, Ryan showed very good self-awareness because he also recognized that “this can be one of my greatest weaknesses.“ If an instruction gets left out, Ryan doesn’t do it or “misses” a step. “[My co-workers] don’t consider that I sometimes won’t intuit what I’m supposed to be doing without being explicitly told first.“

Rex was not surprised by Ryan’s assessment of his perceived weakness. “Ryan picks on himself about it being a weakness that he doesn’t intuit what he’s supposed to do,“ said Rex. But Rex says that if you give Ryan a job, and it comes out different from what you expected, it is because you didn’t tell him correctly. Ryan will do what you say to do, not what you want him to do. 

Rex also highlights Ryan’s ability to focus as a vital asset in the workplace. Rex describes a light shed moment at work. A large part of Ryan’s job duties consists of data management and the manipulation of spreadsheets; Rex had a particularly vexing data problem and needed an answer. He explained it to Ryan, thinking he would likely get a response by the end of the week. “I am not exaggerating this in any way,“ said Rex, “Ryan literally walked over to my computer, went to the upper left-hand corner, and said, ‘change this to this,’ and the entire spreadsheet changed like that,“ Rex snaps his fingers, “The change gave me the answer I was looking for and the process took no more than five minutes.“

Ryan smiled and nodded his head at Rex's retelling of the event. When asked if he recalled the story, he said “yes.“

Ryan feels encouraged by Rex's assessment of his job. "Many [neurotypical] people out there feel like people with autism are incapable," said Ryan, "but my ability to focus makes me a valuable asset."

Ryan had some closing words of wisdom for Westview students and the people looking to hire them. "More often than not, people from Westview can go on to have successful lives. Because of their unique skills, they would sometimes be a valuable asset to wherever they work." 

A Place Where You Fit: One Child's Story

April 20, 2022
By Elizabeth Gretter

Margaret is six years old. She is a lively, precocious, friendly kindergartner who will soon complete her second year as a student at The Westview School. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the parent speaker at the Westview Fundraising Luncheon held in March 2022. Elizabeth gave a poignant and heartfelt speech on what being a part of Westview has meant to Margaret and her family. Margaret is just one of many successful examples of how children on the autism spectrum can learn, grow, and develop a strong sense of self and an appreciation for others when taught in a nurturing and supportive environment like Westview. This is Margaret’s story as told by her mother, Elizabeth.

Before Westview

The best way to express what Westview has meant to our family is to tell you a bit about what came before. When we first decided to name Margaret, Margaret, we thought we would call her Maggie or Meg, but she showed us that those sweet monikers would never suit her. She was a thoughtful, intense, and wonderfully serious, and stubborn little bundle who simply demanded that we call her Marge. A newborn baby called Marge will always get a chuckle. Her little sister would soon make that Margie, which has stuck.

In her early years, Margie’s development seemed to track. She played with her sister, smiled at us, and began speaking at around the same time as her sister. The word autism never crossed our minds. Independent? Yes. Strong-willed? Absolutely. Different? We noticed, yes. But autism? Never.

At around age 3, Margaret joined a preschool class for the first time. We immediately noticed that she had no interest in interacting with the other kids in her class of 20. She was content to play independently or, as her teacher put it, wander from table to table, observing but never really engaging. The kids around her began to pick up their numbers and letters and draw pictures for their moms and dads. Margie refused to join the teacher at the table, let alone hold a pencil or crayon.

Margie began to withdraw more and more into herself at home, too, repeating the same stories repeatedly, with shocking precision and consistency, and avoiding the neighborhood kids. I remember looking at my husband and saying, “Why does it seem like her world is getting smaller and smaller. What if someday it no longer includes us?”

At her 4-year checkup, our trusted pediatrician, hearing all our concerns, suggested we have Margaret evaluated for autism. The first thing we did was sit down with the director of her preschool. “Margaret is autistic.” We said, “Let’s make a plan.” Their response, “Oh, that’s nonsense. Margaret isn’t autistic. She’s just stubborn and anti-social. We all know that.” After a few deep breaths, counting to four just as Daniel Tiger tells us to do when you “feel so mad that you wanna roar,” I excused myself from the meeting and resolved not to bring Margie back after the upcoming spring break. I picked up the phone and made a call to a place called The Westview School.

A First Look at Westview

The Westview School was recommended by Margie’s psychologist, so we thought we’d give it a try. My husband and I, accompanied by my pleasantly Midwestern but deeply protective mother, visited Westview for a tour in February 2020. I felt myself breathing more deeply from the moment we walked through the doors. We were welcomed into the school and, in our first meeting, were asked very simply, “tell me about Margaret.” That was the very first priority - to learn about Margaret. I’m sure my first words were hesitant, laced with the caution that special needs parents learn to use.

“Margie is wonderful. We love her so much. She is ... a lot. She wants to make friends but doesn’t seem to know how. She is having trouble academically, but she is really so smart. Have I mentioned that she is...a lot?”

Unphased, the response was, “we can’t wait to meet her.”

As we walked the halls that first time at Westview, I noticed that the faculty, staff, and students going about their days seemed genuinely happy. Everyone was at ease with each other and relaxed. I began to relax, thinking, “Wow. “I can see Margaret here.”

The final decision was made when we walked into a small PE class. Without introduction, a little boy walked up to us and said with great delight, “My daddy works in a tall building every day. It’s a very tall building. He wears a shirt just like you.”

When we saw the same little boy later in the tour, he grabbed our attention again, “Oh, hello! Let me tell you about my daddy and his very tall building. It’s a very tall building. He wears a shirt just like you.” Nobody shushed him. Nobody, adults, or other kids, seemed phased because he was repeating the same story. We smiled and thought, “yep, these are Margaret’s people.”

These Are Our People

These are our people. We were right. From day one, the twinkle in the eye of administration as I shared stories of Margie restyling herself as a ballerina named “Ina,” to the warm chuckles during Margie’s admissions interview, in which she sang a jazz-style version of the ABCs, excused herself to go to the bathroom, and never returned...to the warmth I hear in the voices of Margaret’s teachers when they tell me about her day, even the not so great ones; to the welcome, she gets every morning in carpool “Hey, giggle box….”

I am struck again and again by this one resounding truth - they like my kid. They see my child for the beautiful, comical, complicated, smart, sensitive, autistic child that she is and appreciate her in all her quirks. They see her as we do. More than that, they see and have allowed us to see the wildly capable adult that Margie can someday become.

With the benefit of the uniquely small class sizes, patient and skilled educators who really get autism, therapies on-site at The Stewart Center, support specialists who are there for Margaret and our family when things get a little rocky, and Margie’s own grit and determination, I am thrilled to report that Margie is thriving academically and socially. She is writing and sounding out words. She loves math. She draws and sings us songs. She has friends and loves to see them every day. Her future is as bright as she can imagine. Currently, she wants to be a meteorologist. If that doesn’t work out, she says, a lifeguard. Whatever path she chooses, I genuinely believe that she will grow as a person who, above all else, loves herself. Westview has shown her, by example, that she is lovable… and capable. They have shown her that she is deserving of her dreams. For that, we are so grateful.

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This post is an excerpt from a speech given by Elizabeth Gretter at the Westview Fundraising Luncheon held at River Oaks Country Club on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Elizabeth has been a parent at The Westview School since August of 2020. 

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