This is the first of a series of posts detailing our journey moving from a special education setting to a mainstream class.  You can read part 2 and part 3 here. I hope sharing our experience will give you a balanced view of the pros and cons of the process and inspire you to perhaps consider a similar journey, if and when, the time seems right for you.
The road to mainstream part 1 (making the decision to transition) -
Earlier this year we finally felt confident enough to make the decision to transition Gilbert Bear from his special education class to a mainstream class for next year.  He has received early intervention for his vision since he was 3 months old, first in the form of one-on-one home visits from a vision therapist from the Royal Institute for Deaf & Blind Children (RIDBC) and, later by attending their specialist pre-school.
A few months after receiving his autism diagnosis he was accepted into a pre-school class at the base school for the Hunter School for Children with Autism (ASPECT). Towards the end of his first year there we did consider transitioning him to his local public school so he could start kindergarten in a mainstream setting.
However, by the start of term 4 of that year, we were not convinced he was ready for the demands of mainstream so we moved him to an ASPECT Satellite class instead. A Satellite class is based at a mainstream school so the kids have the chance to regularly experience what a mainstream classroom is like while still having the safety and security of their special needs classroom to return to afterwards.
Our son has really enjoyed the variety of experiences this education setting has given him and has particularly enjoyed the integration classes where he gets to participate in a mainstream setting. According to his teachers he is the first to put up his hand to answer the teacher’s question (and usually gets it right too!) and has learnt to sit still and participate appropriately.
He still requires verbal prompting at times to keep on track and has periods of swearing when frustrated but he is much further along than he was when we last considered transition two years ago.
This time feels different. He is a little older and wiser and has a greater understanding of what we want him to do.  He still has his moments but he can more easily verbalise how he is feeling now and is motivated to do the right thing by a tick reward chart. If he gets a set amount of ticks, he can receive a reward (usually a comic or a mini-magazine or something similar).
This has been a big turning point for us. Don’t get me wrong, he still has his moments and he always will, but, for the most part, he tries to do the right thing and can now be motivated to keep striving to make the right choices.
This is also working at school and has eased some of our fears about taking him out of a setting where there are 4 teachers and aides to 12 kids, and putting him in a classroom with over 20 kids, 1 teacher and the occasional presence of an aide.
We won’t know for a little while yet what level of funding he will be eligible to receive which will dictate how much access to a teacher’s aide he will receive. We already know that he will not have access to a full-time aide so we have to cross our fingers that he will receive some regular aide time, else it is going to be tough for everyone.
Having Matilda Bear start at the school this year has given us the chance to really make a meaningful relationship with the school and the staff there.  Their support and understanding throughout her recent journey to an Aspergers diagnosis has also given us hope they can provide the same support and understanding to our son.
They are openly welcoming to him, each staff member taking the time to say hello when they see him in the playground. The principal (a former special education teacher who “gets” us and our needs) has welcomed our request for Vision Australia to be involved in the transition process and keeps asking me if there is anything else they can do to help us.
This all sounds so promising and is giving us a boost of confidence just when we need it most. Gilbert is starting to feel anxious about the upcoming change in school and we are starting to get jittery wondering whether our decision is still the right one. Having such a welcoming and understanding school community should, hopefully, get us over the line…
So that’s the background around our decision to transition to mainstream. Next week I will go through the many hoops families need to jump through to get the bureaucratic wheels in motion…stay tuned…