In light of our negative experience with the horse therapy instructor, I have been thinking about how I can approach these types of situations differently. This post has been sitting in my draft folder for many weeks now. I keep looking at it and deleting bits and pieces, softening my words. I really don't want to be terribly negative on this blog. But I also did not expect anyone working with special needs children to display anger or forcefulness in a professional setting. But there it was, the beginning of something ugly that I had to stop.

If anyone else is going through something that is not sitting right with them, then I want to encourage you to speak up. In the last couple of months I keep hearing stories in the news and from people that I meet, about negative experiences with teachers and therapists. A lot of parents seem to question themselves--is that really happening? does it sound worse than it really is? am I over-reacting? maybe they are right? what are the ramifications if I speak up?

One mom I know had a therapist lecture her on her poor parenting. Another had a son verbally bullied by multiple members of the staff at his special-needs school. There are some really awful reports on the news that I wish I hadn't heard. My story is not all that scary, but still definitely upsetting to have my child scolded and shamed by someone who works with special-needs kids every day. It is hard to find safe, non-judgmental places where I can bring my kids and let down my guard. I thought I had found one in the horse farm, but I was wrong. A late-night ER visit for tummy troubles (in hind-sight probably stress related) got me thinking about how to reduce my son's stress level, and it became clear that we needed to be done with horses.

Going forward, I want to always be informed, involved, and ready. When disagreements come up with people in places like school from which we cannot so easily walk away, I want to have a better plan and feel more confident in myself. Here are my main take-aways for myself, what I wish I would have done differently.

I was not at the lesson where the ultimatum was given about saying, "hello." I didn't initially realize the seriousness of her threat. As I was talking with Herbie, he offered that he might whisper a greeting instead of speaking loudly. Since I have most of my free time late at night, I thought I'd shoot off an email to the instructor while I had it on my mind at 11 pm. I simply asked if we could start with whispering, figuring she'd reply that it would be a good place to start. Instead, she called me the next day and it was not a good conversation. She didn't want to talk about it, she wanted to tell me why she was right and why I was wrong. It was going nowhere, so I ended the conversation. I wish that I would have said something like, "for the record, I disagree, but let's talk about it when I see you at the next lesson." In my desire to end a bad conversation, I just tried to be neutral so that I wouldn't start another round of arguing which would prevent me from getting off the phone.

I have always had issues with being heard, I tend to be non-confrontational, not wanting to offend. When it comes to my kids, I can't be like that anymore. That doesn't mean I need to yell and argue. But it does mean that I won't just be polite.

Lesson learned: If the other person is dominating the conversation and I don't want to continue, don't let them assume I am ending the conversation because I agree with them. I will state my disagreement but also state the need to end the conversation and revisit it later.

At the next lesson, our face-to-face conversation was similarly one-sided. I thought I did a little better telling her she was pushing too hard, but she still did not let up on her insistence of a full-voice greeting. I proposed a modification to the format (on the ground instead of in the saddle) and giving it a few weeks to become comfortable. She agreed to the modification but insisted on a vocal greeting on the first try. I knew full well it was a no-go. She was not honestly thinking about my words, and more significantly, she was blaming my son for misbehaving.

She had told me in her own words that he knew exactly what he was doing, that it was one of her pet peeves when someone did not participate in greetings and she had encouraged another girl in the class to get on his case and hold him accountable, thinking that would motivate him. That when he was reprimanded and finally allowed to ask his horse to walk, he impulsively put his reigns up too high so she made him go to the center of the arena until he would apologize. While autism is not an excuse, it is an explanation for challenging behavior and should guide us in how we try to teach skills. Making him ashamed is not the answer.

I knew Herbie would not be coming back. She was too angry, I was too angry. Her comments about how he was "pushing her buttons" and how he could "not be trusted with the reigns" really stung. (Was she saying that she was not capable of making a riding lesson safe for a special needs child?) After lots of thinking, praying, talking, etc., I drafted and edited and re-edited a letter to her. I wanted to get my wording right, say what I wanted to say but not too much. I would not be able to do that in a conversation. So I sent it as an email, expecting that she would probably call me about it. I just wanted to get my thoughts out in writing, that is important to me. Then I drafted a few key things to say in the event that she called, which she did.

One of the first things she said when she called was how she wished I wouldn't use email so much, how I should always call. She kept making comments about how I never talked to her but just sent emails. I tried to remind her that in fact we did talk about this issue on the phone once and in person once, but somehow that was lost on her. She just kept referring to my emails as me not trying to solve the problem, as if the problem would have been solved if we'd talked and I hadn't sent the email. In reality what would have happened if I hadn't sent the email is that I would have been bullied by her and not had the chance to truly articulate my reasons for leaving. So I stood by my emails and said I was happy to follow up with a phone call after an email but I needed to get my thoughts out clearly in the email. She wouldn't let it go and it really irritated me. I wished I had stated in my email something along the lines of "when we talked on the phone and also in person...."

Lesson learned: Document everything--when we talked on the phone, in person, etc. and reference that in subsequent written communications. I can see this being helpful with school IEP issues since there are so many meetings and phone calls and it can be hard to keep it all straight even when it is positive communication.

I had previously assumed that people who work with kids pick up on when strategies are working and when they are not working. If I'm trying to convince one of my kids to do something, and it doesn't work, then I'll try another strategy the next time. That doesn't mean that I never slip into old habits when I'm in the middle of a situation. But if it is a planned discussion, I try to change something to be able to get through to them. In fact, she did not try to think of anything new, because she didn't understand the reason her strategy hadn't worked. She was going with the assumption that he was unmotivated, so in her mind, all that was needed was to be forceful. I am kicking myself for not pointing out to her after that first attempt that she was going about it all wrong. Part of me assumed that she would let it go or if she tried once more that it would sink in that it was not working. Part of me thought maybe he could say, "hi." Nothing in my mind suggested that she would not only stick with it, but get angry and chastise him in front of the group.

Lesson learned: Don't make any assumptions. Ask questions. Speak up.

Herbie is back to his normal fun-loving self, and thoroughly enjoying summer vacation. I intend to give both of my kids more opportunities to give me feedback on their activities and therapies. I will always speak up when something doesn't sit right with me. I will trust my gut instincts. Our family has a lot of goals to work on, we only want to spend our precious time on the ones that are worthwhile. And one that is very worthwhile is having enough unscheduled time for being together and having fun.

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