Husband & Wife Articles


A Test of Patience

Our special needs child has gone beyond the label

By Patrice Athanasidy

January 28th is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the true scholars of the Church. When he was a student, he was nicknamed the “dumb ox” because of his size and quiet demeanor. A prolific writer, he became one of the most influential theologians of his time and has been one of the most respected within Catholic circles. His story is much like the Ugly Duckling story, so misunderstood and ultimately beautiful.

Today, St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron of students and universities. As the parent of a student with special needs, I like to think of him as an inspiration. So often our special needs students are misunderstood as well. It takes someone seeing that potential under the image everyone else sees to bring the student beyond his or her label.

Patrice Athanasidy relaxes at home with her husband, Bill.

My son, Peter, has an autistic spectrum disorder known as PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). Nearly every evaluation says that testing does not do justice to the Peter we know on a daily basis. Peter’s teachers, aides and therapists discover his wit and intelligence in a way a test never can. In preschool, he was barely verbal. He did not really speak in a full sentence until past his fourth birthday. Now in the seventh grade and turning 13 in March, he spells above grade level and uses vocabulary words which sometimes stop me in my tracks.

Over the years, Peter’s team of teachers, aides, therapists, and social workers have taken the time to encourage him to pursue his interests and learn from them. Peter has a fascination with the weather. A few years ago, it was more of an obsession and fear than fascination. It was preventing him from focusing on anything else. We tried to help by teaching him more about the weather and giving him some control.

My husband, Bill, is an earth science teacher who has helped students create a weather station and more. He took the time to teach Peter how to read radar maps, understand high and low pressure, and discover great weather websites.

At school, his team decided to give Peter a time to focus on weather. They made him the weatherman for his class. Before I knew it, Peter was asking me to send pictures to his teacher by email so he could show them on the SmartBoard. He was checking moon phases because one of his friends always wanted to know that. Slowly, the weather became a hobby more than a fear.

Now Peter watches a number of weather reports and then determines which will be most accurate. He has had quite a good record this year, although we do not always like the news he has to give. Peter does so well that friends await his reports, which I sometimes post on Facebook.

If people only saw the panicked little boy screaming as a storm came, that is all Peter would have ever been. He would have spent his life in fear. Instead, Peter learned how to read charts and maps, speak in front of a class, and do math to figure out temperature changes.

We need to share these stories of how our special needs children overcome challenges and become so much more than any test could show. We need to tell people how a little encouragement and concern goes quite a long way. We need to celebrate those willing to look past the labels to see the person each student can become. Then we will have more thinkers like Thomas Aquinas.

Patrice E. Athanasidy writes from Westchester, New York.