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ESY Done The Right Way

With three kids on the Autism Spectrum, we have had our share of experiences with ESY (Extended School Year). Summer is always a precarious time for them since it is filled with transitions and activities that are different from the school year. Every year the ESY is something we have to fight for and argue that without it, they will regress in some way, be it speech, reciprocal language, fine motor or behavior.

We learned what comprises an ESY program is subjective and varies in each school district. In New Jersey, we had some ESY "programs" that were just a self-contained classroom in an empty school. No outdoor time, no typical peers, it was glorified babysitting with OT.   They didn't have a large Autism population and were still trying to figure it out. 

Since we moved to Baltimore, two years ago, we've seen ESY done the right way.  The program blended fun and their needs from their IEP; skills they needed to maintain, therapy, to create  an ESY "summer camp" experience. The program mainstreamed the kids with typical peers, who were mostly siblings of the ESY kids.  Each day for four weeks, the bus picked the kids up and took them to camp.  They were divided into age appropriate "bunks" and did all their activities together. The kids made friends, had and resolved conflicts, and had facilitated and spontaneous interactions.

#1 with his buddy
On the last day of camp, we were invited to attend their end of camp presentations. Some bunks sang songs, and three bunks produced their own videos. When I watched those videos, which the kids made out of pictures and videos edited together with music, I didn't see children with Downs Syndrome, Autism, and other disabilities, I just saw kids. Kids behaving like kids. And, it was emotional.

As a parent of kids with special needs, you worry how your kid will survive in the world. You worry about them making friends and finding their way. You worry about them standing out negatively and being targeted for it. You worry. You just do. But after watching those videos, I worried a bit less. Perhaps it was just because we were allowed to look past the echolalia, the hand flapping, the fact spewing and self-stemming behavior to see them as just kids. Or maybe, it was because I was allowed to see what they could be in an environment that nurtured them and maybe, just maybe,  there was such an environment out there in the big, cruel world. Maybe.

Next year, when the twins turn five, they will get to go to "camp" with the boys as typical peers.  That will be the first time I will have all five kids in a program and have alone time. That will feel weird. When that bus pulls away for the first time, I will be doing the Sound of Music turns on my front lawn. Wait for it, it will hit YouTube for sure. I will be a sensation. Well, maybe not a sensation, but definitely something.


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