By Sharon Wiggins, TLS Parent and L4L Farm Board Secretary I have been asked to share with you why the Learning 4 Life Farm Transition Program is important to my family. It’s been quite a while since I have written anything even remotely like a blog post, but here goes!
My grandson, Charlie, is a student at The Learning Spectrum’s Johnstown location. Charlie lives with my husband and I and has since he was about 5 months old. He is now 14 and entering the Transition class at TLS this fall. He has mild to moderate autism. He has emotional delays and according to an evaluation from Children’s Hospital, intellectual disability that puts his IQ at about 55. His expressive language skills are delayed, while his comprehension is much higher, making it difficult for him to relate what goes on in his mind.
To help you understand why we are so excited about Learning 4 Life Farm I need to give you some family history.
Charlie’s dad is our middle child, Jon. We adopted Jon and his half-sister when they were 5 and 3, though we had cared for both from infancy. Their biological mother was my adopted sister. Confusing family tree, I know!
As the kids were growing up we were aware there was “something” going on in regards to emotional growth and learning. The time period was the early to mid 80’s and resources were limited. We read books. We talked to the kids’ doctor. But information was not readily available regarding autism. In fact, the pediatrician we had suggested that it was all in my mind. After all, our son “could sit still”, so he didn’t have ADHD, which was the popular diagnosis of that time. She refused to consider anything else, or refer us to a specialist. So we suffered in silence.
Friends and family began to withdraw from us because our kids were difficult. We were told by many that we just needed to discipline them more and that obviously we were inadequate (or even bad) parents. We had a very structured home life, because that seemed to be the only way we could exist. But it left very little space for enjoying our kids. Actually, as I sit here and type this I have tears in my eyes and my heart hurts to remember how my kids were shunned.
We homeschooled our kids and it was a daily struggle for all of us, mainly because we did not have any resources to deal with their disability. As Jon, especially, grew into his teen years schooling became more and more difficult. He could read and do math - even geometry - just not on paper. And because of the program we used everything had to be on paper, so it was extremely stressful and difficult to finish the work. In fact, Jon finally just refused to do any more work and quit.
I remember during this time period often thinking that I wished we could find some sort of apprenticeship program to get him involved in. Something where he could do school part of the time and learn work and life skills the other part of the day. He had reached the point where he would not listen to me and I knew we needed help, but we could not find such a program. Everyone we talked to emphasized the need to finish a typical high school program, because no one understood or recognized his disability.
Needless to say, this experience left us frustrated and discouraged. Jon went on to attend the Job Corp and get his GED. He was also trained in carpentry. This was the closest thing to the type of program we were looking for. But the setting he was placed in (inner-city) strongly influenced his behaviour that reflects in his life and lifestyle choices to this day.
I have shared all of this to hopefully give you some insight into why we are so excited about the Learning 4 Life Farm Transition Program. This is exactly the type of program that would have been of great benefit to Charlie’s dad. I would have enrolled him in a heartbeat.
Being a part of the Learning 4 Life Farm program will help Charlie to learn valuable life skills that we can help him translate into everyday life post education. He can learn in a safe environment about job skills that he can take into future employment. Because of the Farm we have hope that we can avoid some of the pitfalls and problems that we encountered before and help Charlie establish a productive life for himself.