Accepting her son’s autism diagnosis was one harsh reality faced by a young mother, but the toughest battle was yet to come as she struggled to find the appropriate support for him.
Four years ago, the frustration sent Angela O’Connell and her family packing in search of a better place for her son Aiden, who is now 10. After interviewing administrators at several school districts, they chose Sauk Prairie.
“We had plenty of resources in Illinois, but we had to fight for all of them and even had to go to court,” O’Connell said. “And our son was being abused at school, and no one stopped it.
“When we discovered Sauk Prairie, we found an overwhelming amount of love. There could not have been more compassion.”
Now Aiden is thriving as a fourth-grader at Grand Avenue Elementary School in Prairie du Sac.
“It’s the simple things that have been huge for us,” O’Connell said. “In Illinois, we requested a special slant board for his desk so he could read because that worked for his sensory issues, and we couldn’t get it. Here, that was easy.
“Beyond that, he has an aide that works with him one-on-one, he gets occupational therapy, and he not only gets to be in the regular gym class but he gets one-on-one in a special gym class with his (physical education) instructor. He’s getting everything he needs.”
Cliff Thompson was the principal at Spruce Elementary when he first heard of O’Connell’s interest in the district, and he formulated a team to establish a game plan. Today he’s the superintendent, which thrills O’Connell.
“I’m so happy there’s someone at the top who believes in this like he does,” she said of Thompson. “He’ll listen to anything I have to say and follow through.”
Thompson is proud of the difference the district has made in Aiden’s life.
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“It’s a credit to our district that we have gained a reputation for having an exemplary (special needs) program,” he said. “We try and treat each and every family with the time and attention they deserve.
“But the O’Connells deserve credit too, and they’re a special family. They really did their homework and outlined what they needed. They made it easy for us.”
Thompson acknowledged a group who made the process a success, starting with Molly Adler, a speech and language therapist, who was the initial contact. Greg Hubanks, director of special education and pupil services, was next to get involved, followed by special education coordinator Doug Yost and then Grand principal Craig Trautsch.
“It really does take a team to do this,” Thompson said. “When it’s all said and done, it’s been an honor to be part of the O’Connell family’s transition.”
So, with Aiden settled in, O’Connell was able to take a deep breath and begin to process all she’s been through as a parent to a child with special needs.
“It was two years ago when I was at an autism conference in Chicago, and people had come to it from all over the world, and as we shared our stories we joked about how we should really write a book,” O’Connell said. “Next thing we knew, we were doing it.”
On April 9 “A Thinking Mom’s Revolution,” which is a compilation of stories from parents of special needs children, will be released by Sky Horse Publishing. O’Connell’s story is among the 24 entries.
“At first I was hesitant, but then it proved really cathartic for me,” she said.
A blog and Facebook page also have been part of the equation, both of which have allowed O’Connell to feel she’s helping others who face the challenges of parenting a child with special needs.
“I never realized how fast it would take off,” she said. “In one year’s time, we have more than 9,000 followers.”