When Sandra was a child in a Seattle special needs program, she felt marginalized both for her cognitive difficulties and for being Black. Teachers would speak too quickly or use terms she did not know, making her feel like her understanding didn’t matter to them as much as that of her white classmates.
When Sandra had her first child, the cycle continued: her daughter was also placed in special education and experienced the same frustrations.
By the time Sandra recognized that Destiny, the granddaughter she was raising, needed support with her cognition and communication, she was hesitant to once again put her trust in a system that had let her and her family down—especially as a single parent with a low income who had already raised multiple children. But she overcame her initial fears so that Destiny, who was born drug-exposed, could begin Early Intervention (EI) therapy with Northwest Center Kids.
Sandra was passionate about helping Destiny, but apprehensive when the EI team discussed autism screenings and eventual preschool. Transportation barriers were on Sandra’s mind—she had no car and significant mobility issues. More consuming was the fear that Destiny would be stigmatized as a child of color with cognitive delays, a traumatic experience that Sandra could not forget.
“Sandra avoided the subject of school,” says one EI team member. “She would often suggest she keep Destiny home with her for another year. We were empathetic, but afraid that another year would come and go without Destiny in a conducive learning environment.”
When Destiny was 3, it was time for preschool evaluation and to explore school district services. But Sandra’s own trauma made it hard for her to consider these options.
“The thought of Destiny moving on from our Birth-to-Three services was almost too much for her to think about,” says one EI team member. “Sandra kept thinking about past traumas and repeatedly sharing past experiences.”
Not wanting Sandra and Destiny to lose the momentum they had worked so hard to gain, the EI team continued care under the Seattle Developmental Bridge Program. Operated by the City of Seattle, the program partners with Early Intervention providers like Northwest Center to offer additional support to high-need families as they prepare for preschool.
First, with persistent encouragement from the EI team, Sandra had Destiny tested for autism. When Destiny was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the team recommended a developmentally diverse ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy program.
But Sandra still hesitated to begin an entirely new daily routine. She was terrified at the thought of losing Destiny, a spirited three-year-old who sometimes ran from her, due to her own mobility issues or Child Protective Services (a very real fear, as children of color are disproportionately removed from their homes.*) Not only did the EI team work with Sandra on her fears, they also coordinated with Hopelink and Seattle Public Schools to provide Destiny with transportation to her new preschool.
Sandra’s next challenge was advocating for herself and Destiny in meetings with support staff and school officials. She was triggered if someone spoke too fast or used professional jargon. Meetings about Destiny’s progress often ended with Sandra feeling dismissed and shutting down. So her EI team joined Sandra for important meetings as a supportive presence and to simplify terminology. In the process, they gained Sandra’s trust and built her confidence to advocate on her own.
Today, both Sandra and Destiny are doing well. Destiny is working hard in therapy and attending a community preschool. Sandra has newfound confidence, attending meetings on her own and even recently switching Destiny to a new pediatrician—a step that would have been daunting three years ago.
“Northwest Center Early Intervention not only supported Destiny, but we also coached Sandra through her own trauma from her childhood experiences in special education,” says her team member. “Now Sandra can feel the rewards of her work during this process, and both she and Destiny can move forward with positive interactions and outcomes.”
* Beniwal, R. (2017). Implicit bias in child welfare: Overcoming intent. Connecticut Law Review, 49(3), 1021-1