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LA parent voice: When you know your autistic son can thrive in a regular school setting — and you’re proved right!

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | April 10, 2018

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Every week, we sit down with Los Angeles parents to talk about their students, their schools, and what questions or suggestions they have for their school district. (See our previous interviews.)

Sylvia Lopez’s oldest son was diagnosed with autism at an early age. James was in special education classes from preschool through middle school. But when he got to high school, Lopez and her husband wanted him to take regular classes. They knew he had the potential to take college prep classes and graduate.

They were right. James graduated from Bell High School in 2015 with a regular high school diploma and is now in his second year at East LA College.

“He was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, he was non-verbal until age 6, he wouldn’t sleep, and all I know is now he talks so much, he’s tells all my secrets, and he’s in college,” Lopez said.

“It wasn’t easy to get there,” she said. To do so, she had to go against the school’s intention to place him in what was labeled mental retardation (MR) classes. That term was used by LA Unified for special education classes until 2016 when the term was changed to intellectual disability.

“We had to fight to put him in regular classes. They only offered MR classes at most high schools then. But mental retardation is not the same as autism, so we had to fight against that,” Lopez said.

James is in the mild spectrum of autism, so she knew he could thrive in school if she became his advocate. So she stayed in very close contact with the school, volunteered, and made herself available to help in any way she could.

“I had a relationship with everyone in school, the teachers, the principal, the administrators, the bus driver. Everyone knew me, so they couldn’t say no when we asked for something,” she said. “I never asked anything for me, but for my  children, and they knew that.”

Lopez said James had an overall “great high school experience” because teachers saw his effort. “He did very well, he tried very hard and got the help he needed from teachers. Because they saw him always trying hard, his teachers always gave him extra help.”

She continued to do the same with her other two sons, who are both autistic. Her middle son is 19 years old. He graduated from high school last year and now attends a transitional school. Her youngest son is 17 and in 11th grade. They both are non-verbal. She also has a daughter, who is 23 and not autistic. She attends Cal State LA.

“The three of them are thriving, because they know they have a mom who has patience, who loves them, who is there to be their best advocate,” Lopez said.

She said she’s constantly learning something new, but one thing she knows well is that “being well informed is so valuable, that’s why I share what I know.” She is a volunteer for numerous autism advocacy groups such as the Autism Society of Los Angeles and the Special Needs Network among others, where she helps low-income and minority families by sharing information with them and directing them to resources.

How did you become a good advocate for your children in school?

You have to be present, you have to be on top of things! You have to be on top of the teacher, the administration, on top of therapy. One thing that has helped me with my children is being involved. I always made myself present at school, attending many workshops, classes, volunteering. I have been there the whole time. Always talk about what your child needs, made it clear to the school that you’re asking for your child, not for yourself. Also, you have to let them know that the autism spectrum is very different, ask for what your child’s needs are. You have to be brave not be afraid to be your child’s advocate because nobody is going to advocate for your child like you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the language or that you don’t have enough education. No one knows your child like you do.

How did you get the school to give you what you asked for your children?

The school is more willing to work with you if they see you’re involved. It’s not that I had nothing better to do. It’s just that I’m trying always to do my best to attend school events and learn, because everything is constantly changing, so I get involved to learn too. You have to be diligent.

What do you think is important for educators to know about autistic students?

They need to respect them, they need to be supportive, compassionate, tolerant. Understand that kids with special needs, no one is like the other, and they need to be understanding. A lot of times when they have a student with disabilities, right away they’re turned off, they’re hesitant, they are even afraid. Many people react that way. These are very misunderstood children. Just like anyone else, they need common courtesy and compassion more than anything. Really wonderful great things come from these children! All three of my sons know how to cook, clean, do laundry, and other chores. I need them more than they need me. They bring so much joy to my life!

These are some websites Lopez recommends for parents of children with autism:

Special Needs Network offers eight-week classes on Saturdays to train parents to advocate for their children.

The A.Skate Foundation offers occupational therapy focusing on motor skills as well as social and behavioral therapy.

A Walk On Water offers surf therapy.

Autism Society of Los Angeles offers workshops about the laws and many other resources.

LA Unified’s board voted Tuesday to approve designating April as Autism Awareness Month. The Division of Special Education presented the latest data about students with autism in the district. According to the presentation, there are 15,500 students in the district with autism; 64 percent are Latinos, and nearly half — 47 percent — are in the elementary grades.


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