From Ashes to Beauty: A Mother’s Journey Through the Unthinkable
By Rick Kern
Monica Moshenko awoke one morning some four years ago to find her fraying world torn by the local school district. Her then four year old son, Alexander, was misclassified as Emotionally Disturbed , based on their evaluations, plunging her into a nightmarish battle for the well-being of her child.
However, as is often God’s way, He has taken a crooked stick and drawn a straight line through the lives of Monica and Alexander, and used it as a guide for those who are following after. From the wrong classification and inappropriate placement, Moshenko learned to navigate the Special Education system, and in so doing discovered numerous rights granted by State and Federal regulations which provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education.
Her school district’s original evaluation, done by a team of three professionals, recommended that Alexander be placed in the most restrictive learning environment for kindergarten, a Boces 6+1+1 class. However, Monica was ill at ease with their conclusions. She felt her son’s obvious sensitivities to certain sounds, clothing textures, foods, and his lack of physical awareness eclipsed the trendy “behavioral problems” tag.
As time passed, the insights gleaned through the daily reports she would receive as well as her observations, led Moshenko to conclude that the behavior management plan created by Alexander’s teacher was seriously lacking. Her heart broke as her five year old son began to ask questions that should never leave a child’s lips. “What’s wrong with me?” “Why was I born like this?” Frustration filled his young life as he cried out, “I can’t help the things I’m doing.” and “Nobody likes me.” Finally, his discouragement led to so much despair that he cried out in desperation, “I just want to die.” Sentiments like these are tragic enough in a troubled adult, but create multiplied sorrow when they come from a child.
Guided by a mother’s instinct, Monica’s uneasiness with the recommendations of the Committee on Special Education, and her growing conviction that she had to get her son into a regular class with his own age group, led her to Dr. Roberta Schnorr. A Special Education Professor at SUNY-Oswego, Dr. Schnorr took a personal interest in Monica’s situation, and began to advise her of the special education laws while advocating for Alex.
Inspired by her new found knowledge, Moahenko enrolled in an advocacy class offered through The University at Buffalo School of Law and thus the tide of her battle began to turn.Ultimately Dr. Schnorr’s extensive observations resulted in the publication of a 26 page evaluation concluding that Alex should never have been placed in his present educational context. As a matter of fact, in her professional judgement none of the other children in his class belonged there either.
Additionally, an independent evaluation from psychologist, Dr. Nancy Zoeller concurred with the opinion, as did Alex’s pediatrician, that the lad should be in the least restrictive environment available, a regular classroom with support. With evaluations in hand, Monica requested a meeting with the Committee on Special Education (CSE).
Based on the evaluations, the CSE agreed that Alex’s best interests would be served in a standard classroom environment, with a full time aide, and Consultant teacher services. It was a resounding victory on one key front, but there was still the boy’s medical diagnosis to grapple with as his daunting social challenges and sensory issues continued to mount.
Time, experience, and lots of lumps taught Monica to carefully navigate the confusing and expensive world of healthcare. She had seen a psychologist, an allergist, iridologist, chiropractor, audiologist, and also went the gambit of “natural” health products. Finally, through a sequence of events, she came to the conclusion that an experienced Occupational Therapist (OT) could very well be the one health professional that could lift the veil from this heart breaking mystery. Enter, Chris Alterio.
Not only did Alterio know which diagnostics would disclose the problem, once the correct diagnosis was tendered, he was able to address Alex’s sensory needs with the appropriate Sensory Integrative Therapy. In addition, an accurate diagnosis opened a world of desperately needed supports and services to the Moshenko family providing hope and renewed vigor. The “real” culprit: “Asperger’s Syndrome”, a malady significantly identified only in the last 10 years or so.
This high functioning form of Autism is often characterized by a lack of empathy, the inability for friendships, marked absorption in a special interest, one-sided conversations, and a seeming lack of coordination. Sound and touch are processed so much more intensely that rough fabric on the skin can become absolutely unbearable.
For young Alex, the OT’s expertise was able to cut through the complex sensory issues that were misread and misinterpreted as behavioral problems. After one year of Sensory Integration therapy (SI), the changes in Alex were dramatic. He has come to a level of self awareness that enables him to communicate his needs as they arise, thus allowing a timely and appropriate response. As he continues to acclimate to life, he still participates in SI at home, and also receives OT therapy in school twice a week.
Monica Moshenko, in addition to taking on the toughest job in the world (the task of being a single parent of three), works full time for the University of Buffalo, Great Lakes Program. Because of her now extensive experience with Special Education and numerous requests for help from parents of children with disabilities, she has created an advocacy agency called Power Advocates (PA).
PA provides monthly group training sessions to help parents effectively advocate for their children. It educates them about Special Education Law and ways to marshal its forceful application on their behalf, as well as providing individual evaluations to ensure the appropriate supports/services are being accessed for disabled children. Power Advocates also helps parents of disabled children develop realistic goals and objectives, as well as strategies for reaching them.
“Because of the ongoing challenges I faced the last few years getting the proper diagnosis and help by professionals in the medical community as well as school,” Moshenko says, “I decided to try and help others who may be going through similar issues in the schools with special education and also about the disability of autism and the varying degrees it has.” Her advocacy has drawn considerable attention and brought her to radio, television, and newspapers, along with churches.
One of her more noteable achievements has been the realization of a regional conference on autism and Asperger’s Disorder that took place at the Buffalo Convention center last month. Featuring nationally recognized speakers, the two-day event was a dream come true for Moshenko. Its keynote speaker was Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D. a high-functioning autistic woman who is presently a professor in livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University, as well as a celebrated author. Presented by Texas based publishing company, Future Horizons, it was a huge success with over 400 people in attendance and included several relevant workshops in addition to the extensive speaking presentations.
Monica Moshenko is a system-savvy, street-fighting, class act who has paid some real dues and is working very hard to keep others from having to pay them as well. To learn more about Power Advocates or support her work, check out their web site at www.poweradvocates.org, or call them at (716) 522-9185.