You are More Than Just Teachers; You are Family

When I was 18 weeks pregnant with my oldest child I started researching daycare centers. I visited a few and while they were all beautiful, in new buildings with state of the art facilities and big corporate names attached, I always felt like I was being sold something, and not like they genuinely cared about being with my child for so many hours each week.

Then I visited Little Hands Academy (LHA), which didn’t even come up on my GPS as I was trying to visit it for the first time.

I realized I had driven past it many times before, and had no idea it was even there. There, in an unassuming building, was this gem of child growth and development.

It was/is run by Nina Aaron Ryan, a woman with a background in early childhood education, who opened it herself, and basically decorated/painted/yard-saled for every item in the building. It didn’t smell like new carpet and fresh paint like the other facilities, but I just got a warm, fuzzy feeling immediately upon entering.

After interviewing Nina and her staff, I brought my husband back for a second visit, after which we paid our deposit and here we are six years later. My oldest attended school there every day, from 7:30am to 4:30pm for the past five years (from age 12 weeks until this past August, when she started kindergarten), and my son is still there in the “older toddler” room.

My oldest, Abby, didn’t develop typically. She spoke in full sentences from the time she was 12 months old. When I had my son Ben three years later, and he wasn’t babbling by 12 months, I just chalked it up to the fact that he’s a boy and boys just develop more slowly than girls.

I didn’t even really notice anything was odd about Ben’s development because I thought it was “normal.”

I knew that Abby’s early speaking abilities were not typical, so I just thought “oh, well this just must be what typical kids are like.” I remember the first time his teachers mentioned something to me about his talking; I will be honest and say I was irritated by it.

I thought “They are just used to Abby and he’s his own person. He’ll talk soon enough.”

Fast forward a few months, and still nothing. At this point, they brought it up to me again, and again, I naively thought, “It’s fine, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with my son, but I’ll just contact Early Intervention services to make them happy.” I called, and got an appointment, all the while thinking it was just a formality.

Well, we attended that evaluation in June of 2017 and sure enough, Ben fell way below where he should be with speech development. We ended up qualifying for EI and I left that appointment being appreciative that LHA noticed something was off, because honestly, I didn’t.

Ben began receiving EI services at school, because I work full time. This was hard for me, because I wasn’t there to see him interact with his therapist so I had no idea how effective these sessions would be for him. His teachers knew that being proactive was important, so they acted as my eyes and ears and filled me in on each and every session he had when I arrived at pickup that day.

It ended up that his first developmental specialist was not a good fit for him. This was a gut feeling I had from the start, but their opinions just cemented what I was thinking. I ended up calling and requesting a new therapist, which was honestly the best thing I have done so far in our journey because it lead to all of the positive things which came after.

Ben started EI in August of 2017, and the director of LHA, Julie Barlow, as well as several teachers, began giving me daily updates on his progress. Julie even had a meeting with me to recommend that we hold Ben back from moving up to “Older Toddlers” when he turned two because he was still really behind his peers.

I realize now, this suggestion came out of love and professional experience, but as a mother, I wasn’t ready to hear that or admit to myself that Ben wasn’t ready. I insisted they forge ahead, and she graciously obliged.

Within a few months, it became glaringly obvious that not only wasn’t he ready, but that something more than a speech delay was going on. I started to know in my heart that Ben had autism, but I wasn’t ready to say it out loud.

Then one day in April of 2018 I went to pick him up from school and Julie met me at the front door to tell me that Ben had his worst day so far. No mother wants to hear that A) their child behaved so horribly all day and B) that her child was crying and unhappy and inconsolable for most of the day.

I loaded the kids in the car and took Ben to the pediatrician because I had convinced myself that Ben had an ear infection or another invisible ailment like teething which was causing his behavior. They fit me in for a “same day appointment” and as the doctor was examining him, I was able to see his behavior through her eyes.

I will never forget pulling into my garage that night; my husband happened to arrive home at the same time as us. He got out of his car and I explained he didn’t have an ear infection.

He asked me “Well what the heck is wrong, then?” and for the first time I uttered out loud “I’m pretty sure he has autism.”

I ended up sending Julie and his teachers a heartfelt email that night, with all of my feelings and when I arrived to pick him up the next night, I was greeted with hugs from most of the staff. One teacher even cried as she hugged me, because she has been in my shoes with her own child.

The next day, I called Boston Children’s Hospital, and as luck would have it, we were eight days away from the age cut off where the appointments for evaluations went from a six week wait to a six month to a year wait. I made the appointment and about a month later, my beautiful son Ben was officially diagnosed with autism.

Had it not been for that awful day, and heartfelt conversation with his teachers, I might have waited and missed the window to have him evaluated early.

I wasn’t sure how it would work with LHA; I will never forget sending them an email asking if they’d rather I found a different center for Ben. After all, they don’t specialize in special needs kids, and I am well aware of the fact that 60+ kids under the age of six are challenging in any case, but add one who has autism and behavior issues to the mix and that makes it 1000 times harder on the teachers.

I remember them laughing at my question, as if to even suggest they didn’t want Ben anymore was the most ridiculous thing they’d ever heard. The conversation quickly switched from “Do you want me to find a new school for Ben?” to “What can we do for Ben to make his days here better and easier for you, and for him?”

It’s been five months since Ben was diagnosed and in that time, he’s started OT, and ABA, and more speech. He also still sees a developmental specialist through EI. Because I work, most of his sessions happen at LHA, and as always, they are my ears and my eyes when I can’t be there.

I can’t tell you how many times a doctor or therapist comments on how amazing it is, and good for Ben’s future that we caught his diagnosis so early. In those moments I often thing to myself, it never would have happened had I not had the constant pushes from his caring teachers who just wanted the best for Ben.

I also can’t tell you how many times his ABA team has commented on how wonderful and involved his teachers are in his therapy; ABA is always amazed that his teachers ask questions during his ABA sessions and ask for suggestions, and pointers to ensure they are doing things in a way that will help Ben, and lessen his frustration.

I often forget that his teachers do not have a thousand specialized degrees, and are not making boatloads of money to be there every day. Rather, they are just hardworking, loving, people who adore the children they work with and who are willing to be paid a fraction of what they actually deserve in order to do something to change the world in some small way.

In January 2019, when Ben turns three and early intervention officially ends, Ben will transition to our town’s public preschool program so he can continue to receive free services.

Part of me feels like someone is dying; this thought of leaving the comfort of LHA and tearing Ben away from his home away from home. I know it’s for the best for Ben’s development, but it’s still so sad. And what do you think LHA’s reaction was to me telling them we were likely leaving in January?

They asked me if there was any way we could work it out so Ben could still attend, even just one day a week. That’s how much they love my son, a child who is not always easy, and who is exhausting, and requires constant attention – by asking if he could stay.

That question blew me away. For the millionth time, I had the realization that it wasn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling I had six years ago after my initial visit, it was actually divine intervention. Who knows what kind of mother I’d be if I didn’t have Little Hand’s Academy to help guide me as I learned? And I can say for sure Ben’s progress wouldn’t be as amazing as it has been because of the fact that we were alerted to the fact that something was going on, so early in his development, thanks to them.

I know I don’t say this as often as I should, but Nina, Julie, Monica, Trina, Emily, Natalia, Madison, Casey, and anyone else in Ben’s Little Hand’s village, thank you from the very depths of my soul.

We love you and appreciate you more than we could ever put into words. You are an extension of me, when I can’t be there during the time I am at work, and you are more than just teachers; you are family.

The Sheldons are thankful for ALL that you do and will NEVER forget you. You’ve truly changed Ben’s life.

Written by, Jessica Sheldon

(Editor’s Note: This article was provided by Jessica Sheldon and is part of Cooper’s, ‘I’m Thankful For You’ Campaign.)

You can still nominate the doctors, therapists, teachers, friends and family that make a difference in your special needs world. Click HERE to learn how!

Finding Cooper’s Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you’re never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village….all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier. Welcome to our journey. You can also follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

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Finding Cooper's Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you're never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village....all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier. Welcome to my page!


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When my son was first diagnosed with autism no one was talking about it. Autism was hidden. I vow to change that.

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