Before Dan steps into the world

Special needs students learn how to make the transition from school.

Life skills staffer Kyle Stobie, left, helps Austin Simonin and Dan Meaney remove slats from the gutters of the hydroponic system in the Thimble Farm greenhouse. — Photo by Sam Moore

My son Dan is autistic, and as a 21-year-old student in the transition program at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, he’s got approximately 4½ months before he leaves school permanently on his 22nd birthday and begins the real experience of living and working in the Island community. If Dan’s not properly prepared for this transition, our family faces one of the most significant hurdles ever.

While Dan is very capable while working and interacting with peers physically, his language is quite limited, and includes a lot of repetition of his favorite phrases, such as “Which one’s bigger? Four or six? Four is bigger. Quit telling lies about numbers.”

Parents of children with special needs face the same daunting challenges parents of typical children face. And then they face more extraordinary worries. Who will take care of their child when they no longer can? Who will wake their son or daughter up in the morning and help them with bathtime and breakfast? Where will they live? Will they ever have meaningful employment, or for that matter, a fulfilling life?

This school year, special education teacher Laura DeBettencourt is leading the school’s transition program, which is comprised of four students, ages 18 to 21, who are preparing to leave the protective bubble of the school environment for their dramatic — and hopefully not traumatic — entrance into “the real world.”

Ms. DeBettencourt said that every year — and she’s been a special education teacher at the high school for 17 years — she worries about what will happen to her students after they leave school.

“I can get them ready to transition,” she says, “but they need something to transition to.”

Staff in the transition program coordinate taking the students to and from job locations in the community and assisting them at the various sites. This year they have their own van to use for transporting students; last year they had to make do sharing whatever was available.

Besides all the logistics involved, there has to be a certain level of relationship building, so that the school program can reach out to employers who are willing to take on students with physical and intellectual disabilities, not an easy task.

Dan works at the Farm Institute on Mondays and Wednesdays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays he goes to Thimble Farm. Both jobs are volunteer positions, at least for now. Dan prefers to be outdoors, and he requires a job where he can move around, because sitting is nearly nonexistent for him. He would not do well at a job site that required him to stay in one spot or to sit at a desk, for instance. The other three students in his program may have completely different needs. It’s Mrs. DeBettencourt’s job to provide the best experience for each individual student.

“There are the scheduling and logistical aspects,” she explained, “and we need time to set aside to preview and go over the checklist, job rules, and other responsibilities.

“All the things we do naturally have to be broken down and sequenced into steps for these students. And they need a site where the staff provides positive, not negative, reinforcement.”

All the while, Mrs. DeBettencourt must focus on meeting each student’s specific Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals.

“They need to be acknowledged respectfully, and they need to feel like contributing members of their community. All of this is best done by a program with structure,” she explained.

Dan has worked at the Farm Institute for a couple of years now. At one point, he came home from school repeating “Spartacus” and “Gloria” all the time. It took us a while before we figured out they were names of animals at the farm.

I had the opportunity to watch Dan and his friend Austin transplant sorrel at Thimble Farm the other day. With support from educational support professionals (ESPs) Hallie Britt and Kyle Stobie, they were able to work for a couple of hours on at least three separate tasks. Thimble Farm is a new job site, starting up only six weeks ago.

I asked farm manager Keith Wilda how the new partnership with the high school’s transition program was working.

“I realize it’s really important for them to have multiple jobs here,” Mr. Wilda said. “Working with the plants seems to energize them.” He added, “Your son is an important part of our workforce. The nice thing about Dan and Austin is that they’re reliable.”

Both Thimble Farm and the Farm Institute have educational components to their business, so they are both perfect options for Dan after he leaves Mrs. DeBettencourt’s class. But what about all the other students, who may not enjoy farm-related work? Will there be a business willing to take them on?

Dan and Austin did work at the Big Dipper, stocking product and waiting until the end of their work sessions to taste the ice cream. And Dan loved working with Phil Hughes, or “Coach” as Dan calls him, at his bicycle shop in Edgartown. Those sites, while great experiences, are open seasonally.

Right now my job is to make sure Dan’s school experiences can continue after his next birthday. This means a lot of meetings at the high school and at Community Services, where they have an assisted-employment program for persons with disabilities who can find a paying job. Unfortunately, in our case, I’m not sure if a paycheck is in Dan’s immediate future.

Mrs. DeBettencourt isn’t alone in instructing and guiding Dan and her other students. Kyle Stobie is one of the educational support professionals working with the class.

Kyle graduated in 2014, and began working for the school district that fall. He was one of several student mentors who regularly came to Dan’s class, at that time the Life Skills classroom. Kyle’s friend Matt Fielding kept telling him what a great time he was having volunteering in the class, so Kyle decided to try it for himself, and he loved it.

“I feel good about the job I do,” Kyle said. “When I see them do something on their own that I taught them, that’s a great feeling.”

The high school students who volunteer time in the special education programs may not realize the impact they have on the students.

Dan went through the graduation ceremony in 2014 with Kyle, Matt, and his other friends who were graduating. Dan walked the stage and received a certificate, not a real diploma, but the experience was as special as any other student’s graduation day.

We hosted a graduation party that rivaled any celebration other families might have pulled off — live music, delicious food, a giant cake, and lots of congratulations and gifts.

What was most extraordinary, however, was the fact that at least a half-dozen “typical” students, some of whom were celebrating their own graduation day, came to our party. Kyle and Matt were both there, and had sat with Dan, along with other friends, throughout the ceremony at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, making sure Dan wasn’t overwhelmed by the whole experience and taking time to help him navigate his way through the crowd.

A few months before Dan participated in the graduation ceremony, we hosted a “vision party” with school staff and some of his friends at our house. During the party we asked them what they thought Dan’s strengths were, and how he could develop them so he could live a more fulfilling life. That’s when we found out from Kyle and his other friends that Dan enjoys crabbing, playing Frisbee, and dancing to all kinds of music — including country music, which I never play at home. These were all things we were unaware of.

Islanders may not consider this at all unusual, but having lived in several different cities and towns, I can say that this Vineyard community stands out as the most accepting and welcoming place we’ve ever encountered. That is what I am counting on when Dan leaves school for the last time.