Good TK/elementary options for neurodivergent kids

A version of this question was asked in a recent Q&A, but my circumstances are a bit different, so apologies for the novel you are about to read: 

My son, who just turned 4, was diagnosed with autism (along with sensory processing disorder, childhood apraxia of speech, and general dyspraxia) when he was 2.5. The diagnosis came from a neurologist at Cortica, and while I don’t dispute any of it, I was slightly disturbed by the minimalism of the assessment, most of which derived from parental self-reporting (the in-person part of the assessment was ~45 minutes). Also, at the time my son was almost entirely nonverbal, but he underwent a truly wild language explosion just after 3. He is now *extremely* verbal and communicative in a way that is most often understandable to us and strangers, and he generally makes use of proper grammar and syntax, even in relatively complex formulations.

That said, my son is clearly neurodivergent. For instance, he has been obsessed with letters since he was 1.5 and taught himself to read and write before the age of 3 (no joke). Yet he refuses potty training (will hold it for >12 hours) and is still very happily in diapers. I have absolutely no concerns about his “academic” skills, but he definitely needs support in the social-emotional and self-help arenas.

Just before his language explosion, he was assessed by OUSD and given an IEP that included placement in a special-ed preschool. By this point we had enrolled him in a private preschool in which he was thriving, and so we declined the offer. We are now working to get him reassessed by OUSD, given his significant transformation over the past year. Currently the only treatment he receives is morning ABA therapy five days a week at his preschool. (As an aside, I still am not convinced that this kind of one-on-one “therapy” is beneficial to him, as I believe it sets him apart and potentially slows his development by allowing him to continually ask for help, even for tasks I know he can perform.)

Next year, however, we are hoping to enroll him in a public TK program. I have recently heard horror stories about schools failing to incorporate legally mandated student supports and instead regularly sending young kids home early for supposedly “disruptive” behavior. I have sympathy for the plight of underfunded public schools/educators, but…I am starting to have some concerns about selecting/getting into a school that will meet my son’s needs. Like I said, I’m not especially concerned about academics at this point, but rather the functionality of social-emotional supports and commitment to student well-being.

We are zoned for Laurel Elementary and also live extremely close to Melrose Leadership Academy, which I have always been interested in. Recently, however, I’ve heard about parents not thrilled with MLA’s approach to IEP-mandated services. So I’m curious about two things: 1) I’d love to hear from parents who have experience with special-ed services in either of these schools—what your experience has been and if you’d recommend either school; and 2) if anyone has specific recommendations for other OUSD schools that have well-developed special-ed programs and work to incorporate neurodivergent kids into the classroom community with kindness and respect. 

Thank you!

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Hi there,

I would be happy to chat with you about my experience with OUSD and I also encourage you to join some local Facebook groups to connect with other parents of children with IEPs. 

No answers from me but we're actually in a very similar position, so I'd be interested in hearing about anything you learn. 

ASD 3yo in a private preschool and we're looking to move to public TK. We're in Oakland, zoned for Hillcrest. We're also curious about other districts (Piedmont, Orinda, Lafayette or others) and whether it'd be worth pursuing a transfer or even moving.

Hi, my son is in kindergarten at Melrose and has an IEP. Also diagnosed with autism, at age 4. Overall we've been happy with the school. Happy to chat more about our experience, phone may be easier, please feel free to message me directly. 

While I do not have specific and current recommendations on the schools you are considering, we were once in your position and I feel compelled to share a few anecdotes and things that we found helpful.

Our neurodivergent son is now in his mid-30s, a successful professional, well-regarded in his work group, and has a master's degree. 

But he could not string a sentence together in first grade.   Then, like you say, there was a "language explosion", fortified by phono-linguistic reading tutoring.

After our son was kicked out of a private kindergarten, we took him to UCSF for a four-day workup.  The takeaways:  1. He's college material. and 2. Your most important job is to protect him from being bullied at school.

This advice was totally worth the then-astronomical price of $4000.

By then I had compiled a big spreadsheet of all the different diagnoses he had been assigned by different experts with different backgrounds.  I learned that this was a common parlor game among special education moms. It induced a healthy skepticism.

As you evaluate school programs, the thing to look for is adequate playground supervision. If the scene can rapidly become "Lord of the Flies", you don't want your kiddo exposed to that.  The long-suffering teachers, may they be praised, can't be responsible for playground supervision. But SOMEONE needs to be there - the proverbial adult in the room.

Other things I learned along the way:

If the school calls you and says, "Come pick him up, he misbehaved," you can say "I can't leave work now".  I lost a good job before I was clued in to this by a friend who taught special education in Piedmont.

If your kid does not make friends in school that is OK, but find another way for them to make friends.  For us it was Boy Scouts, where bullying will not be  tolerated, And a wonderful teacher at Hillcrest Middle School named Jill brokered a friendship between our son and another boy, through a social skills-building group called "Homework Club". They remain best friends 20 years later.

In 8th grade, our son could not stay on task long enough to write an essay. A wonderful resource teacher asked him what reward would motivate him to stay on task.  He told her, 'ten minutes of idle time per hour'.  Then he negotiated saving up his minutes to allow him an entire afternoon to himself where he could hang around in the school  library,  Thus this teacher's use of behavior modification techniques allowed him to write essays. Later he was  accepted to UC Davis.

In California by law we have Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs). Oakland is its own SELPA.  Each SELPA has a Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC). I was once co-chair of ours. Participation is a good way to meet the top administrators and other parents.  Some of those I met when our son was in school remain my friends today.

With a concerned and involved parent like yourself, I am sure that your kiddo will navigate his early education well and be successful later in life,

No advice but you are not alone in this challenge… including questioning the ABA.