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Autism takes a vacation

Allison Ziering Walmark

This week marks the last week of first grade and kindergarten for my son and daughter, respectively.

School is out for summer

While they each attend public schools in town, my son goes to the public elementary school with a special needs program that best integrates his typical classroom work with his additional needs.

Although this school year has been one for the record books as far as Ethan’s educational, social, musical, psychological, neurological and physical progress, and I delighted and rejoiced in my daughter’s love of kindergarten, the selfish side of me could really use that 60-something-day break. Simply put, I am so over the school year already.

At the risk of sounding over-indulged and selfish (which is self-evident), what I won’t miss — as the weather turns from gloriously warm to oppressively hot then back to gloriously warm, as the light of day extends well into the 8:00 p.m. hour — is:

  • The 6:30 a.m. alarm clock blast (which includes Saturday and Sunday, when our children jump into our bed)
  • Packing three separate snacks and two separate lunches each day for two children with distinctively different palates
  • Daily arguments about my daughter’s choice of ensemble (call me old-fashioned, but I still believe a child should be at least age 7 before going commando… )
  • Waiting outside for Ethan’s 8:00 a.m. bus, and then waiting again at 8:30 a.m. for Eliza’s bus. (At times, missing them both.)
  • Afternoon insanity that includes athletics for my daughter, and various music and autism-related therapies for my son. (Although the music and therapies are necessities that continue through the summer.)
  • Recitals. Recitals. Recitals.

What I will miss

Ethan Walmark with Ed Huydic and Matt Barrett

Again, at the risk of sounding over-indulged and selfish, there are two things — more specifically, two people — I will miss: Ed Huydic and Matt Barrett. Ed and Matt are Ethan’s paraprofessionals; each separately spend two-and-a-half school days with him per week. To say that Ed and Matt merely “shadow” Ethan all day is to do them a grave disservice.

Ed and Matt not only provide Ethan with one-on-one services when needed, but both of them have become more like Ethan’s older brothers. They watch out for him. They celebrate his progress. They redirect him when his actions are inappropriate. They keep him grounded, which allows him to fly. They help make Ethan a better all-around person. Ed and Matt are the kind of solid, steadfast role models whose character, integrity, intelligence and heart I would wish on any mother’s son, especially my own.

Today, people in their 20s are sometimes perceived as “entitled” and vacuous; not Ed and Matt. These two men — in their 20s — give their heart and soul to the children, teachers and education system they work with, and for.

Ethan’s Special Ed

Ed, for example, has been a paraprofessional at my son’s school for five years. Professionally, Ed wants to grow both as an educator and person, so he will apply to Southern Connecticut State’s special education certification and a master’s graduate program, which will (hopefully) allow him to reach his educational goals. (Ed’s father is also a teacher in our school district, and my husband was fortunate enough to know him when he was a student). While Ed is a role model for Ethan, other teachers are role models for Ed.

“The special education program I’ve been a part of has really helped me to make a decision about my career and future,” he candidly told me. “I’ve also had the pleasure to work with and teach some of the most blessed children I know. I thank God every day for having the kids I’ve taught in my life.”

When not working with Ethan or another child, Ed is heavily involved in high school athletics. He is the head girls’ junior varsity (JV) basketball coach, and his dad is the head girls’ varsity coach, a position he has held for the past 28 years. Ed and his dad work side by side throughout the winter. Ed also works with the town’s high school lacrosse program; the team made it all the way to the recent state championship game. Modestly, Ed told me, “I had the privilege to actually coach all the seniors who graduate this year; I’ve coached them since they were freshmen.” As if Ed’s accomplishments in the school and on the field aren’t enough, he was recently honored with the Connecticut High School Coaching Association’s “Assistant Coach Of The Year” award.

The blessing of Mr. B.

Ethan Walmark as Matt (and visa-versa)

Matt is no different. He and Ethan have worked together for two years, and Ethan lovingly and respectfully refers to him as “Mr. B.” — Ethan’s sister, in her first boy-crush at age 6 refers to Matt as “Mr. Beef” — and Matt calls him, “E.” Like Ed, Matt has been at the Ethan’s elementary school for five years, where his skills and knowledge benefit the special education department beyond measure.

Matt’s expertise involves helping students with varied academic needs and abilities in the resource room and within inclusive regular classrooms reach their full potential; he treats every student with the utmost respect and professionalism. Matt hopes to one day become a certified special education teacher, and continue to better the lives of children who “learn differently.” He also hopes to one day have his own caseload in a resource room environment.

There must be something about teaching and athletics — like peanut butter and jelly or movies and popcorn or shorts and a T-shirt — because like Ed, Matt is heavily involved with sports outside of his teaching job as well. Matt attended Eastern Connecticut State University, where he lettered in lacrosse his freshman and sophomore years. Matt took his game experience and “gave back” to his high school where he returned to be the JV lacrosse coach, a position he has held for four years. One source of pride for Matt is that he has seen many of the players he coached go on to play successfully at the college level; his goal is to become his high school’s varsity lacrosse coach one day.

Beyond the classroom

The real icing on the cake is that both Ed and Matt, much to Ethan’s elation, attend every one of his School of Rock concerts, miscellaneous events when he plays music, and don the “famous” E-TEAM shirt for our annual Autism Speaks Walks. That, to me, shows their depth of character, heart and soul, and just how seriously they take their responsibility. They go above and beyond (as do all Ethan’s teachers and therapists) the proverbial call of duty, to make sure Ethan knows how much he is loved and cared for, both in and out of school.

So, much as I complain about needing and wanting a break from the school routine (and perform my annual ritual of trying to maneuver my body into a bathing suit, much the way a butcher tries to squeeze sausage meat into its too-tight casing), I guarantee that after one week — make that one day — home with my children even without the alarm clock… without snacks and lunches to pack… without school buses to miss… and carpools to drive… I will long for the return of school, if only so Ethan can once again see his de facto big brothers, Ed and Matt. Come to think of it, August can’t come soon enough.

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