Updated: May 6
I am very happy to welcome Grace, an expat in Switzerland who has offered to share her story about finding the right supports for her son with special needs so that others may learn from her experience.
My name is Grace and I am from Ecuador, a small and beautiful country in South America. I am also a wife, mother of two, and a finance professional. I truly believe in the power of women in our society and I would like to share with you my journey to find the best way for my son with special needs, in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the system. I hope the lessons I learned along the way will help support and empower you on your own journey.
My son’s name is Julian, he is 16 years old, and he was born with epilepsy and complex partial seizures that affected his brain and normal functioning. As a result of everything he has lived through he has an intellectual disability; he has the body of a 16-year-old and the attitude of a 16 or 8-year-old, depending on the circumstances. He possesses an extremely slow learning profile and a privileged and fantastic memory. Four years ago, he had an operation removing 20% of his brain and since then his seizures have stopped.
When we received a proposal from my company to transfer to Switzerland we had a lot to consider. Among our main concerns, was moving my son with special needs from his organized life - his “perfect world” - to one with many unknowns. In Ecuador, our family had every detail organized, our established home and school routines kept us calm and focused on our respective responsibilities. The idea of moving to a completely foreign environment and changing what was working for our family was very scary! When we made our final decision we knew that moving to Switzerland might be a challenge, but at the same time, it was a great adventure we didn’t want to miss.
Overcoming Obstacles with the Right Support
A few months later we arrived in Switzerland with our suitcases full of illusions - we had incorrectly assumed that everything would work perfectly. And with that, I have my first piece of advice for parents: Be willing to ask for help! Moving will inevitably have its ups and downs, it involves not only joining a new school system, but also a completely different environment: New language, new life, new friends, new food, and what may often feel like a haunting world you must accept. As parents, we need to be prepared to adapt to the structures that have previously been established in our new home country even though they can feel very different than what we are used to. One of the most important tips I can give, as you help your family overcome the shock and challenges of your big move, is to hire a transition expert. There are several professionals who specialize in helping families with their transition and can lead the way. Ultimately, enlisting an expert can save you time and energy.
Among my first frustrations was that we made the move during the holidays and everything was closed. I couldn't visit schools and didn't know what to do with my son at home. All he could think about was, when would his belongings arrive. My husband was busy taking care of our baby and I was adjusting to my new professional environment. It wasn’t the start we had imagined.
After waiting for the end of the holidays, we thought finally the school "should" accept our son directly. But no, we came to understand that the acceptance process would take time and we would need to be patient. The school required an assessment procedure so they would be able to understand my son’s needs appropriately and create a specific work plan for him according to the capacity of the Zug canton where we live.
Before these assessments could begin, we had to find a translator because there weren’t any Spanish-speaking psychologists or therapists who could communicate with Julian (who only spoke Spanish at the time). Although he is a very open child, he was definitely intimidated by the questions and the communication style. We asked for help, by contacting a special education consultancy in Zug. Our consultant supported us through the entire process from finding us a psychologist who was willing to work with a translator to translating documents and walking us through the formal steps with the canton. This was a fantastic decision, making the process more efficient by reducing our workload and stress, and one I highly recommend.
Identifying your Medical Team
After my son completed his psychological tests, even prior to receiving the results, the canton sent us for medical studies. This was a comprehensive and exhaustive experience because we needed to start over (new studies, new reports, and admission to the hospital) in order to validate previous medical interventions. Luckily, with our home country doctor’s support, we found Klinik Lengg in Zurich, the most warm, understanding, and experienced staff we could have hoped for. They made what could have been an overwhelming experience pleasant. Thus, my second piece of advice is to find a good medical team as soon as possible. You never know when you will need medical interventions and it is better to find a team you feel comfortable with when everyone is healthy than when there is an emergency.
Building the Parent-Teacher Relationship
Finally, we received the psychological report to add to Julian’s medical assessments and with all this information the canton decided where my son would be accepted, they gave us two options one in Cham and one in Zug. We chose the Heilpädagogische Schule Zug, and while there are definitely cultural differences, from the first day they were very warm and supportive. Furthermore, they have understood all of the challenges and demands of working with my son, including that he didn’t speak German.
They have created a study program for him, with a focus on enhancing his strengths, and above all the necessary requirements, to help him in the areas he needed to improve (including teaching him German). The school has a team of approximately 6 teachers and for each group, there are approximately 5-6 students. Customization to meet each student’s needs is excellent. They have a lead teacher who guides the group and is the one who serves as a point of contact for the parents; she does a fantastic job integrating all the therapeutic needs with the academic ones, and with the necessary connections and approvals that the canton requires.
My third piece of advice is to create a solid parent-teacher relationship because your teachers will be your biggest allies. I think it is very important to live close to the school, always attend meetings, and be genuinely interested in collaboration. Culturally we are very different, and many things that are done at times seem overly cold to us, but over time we have discovered that this form of education has favored my son's learning. He is happy, has structure, and above all, every day he is more independent. It is a blessing to see him taking the bus and the train alone and speaking German. The school’s support and our trust in their teaching are all responsible for his smooth transition and growth. They are doing a fantastic job!
In Summary, if you are making a move abroad with a child with special needs, I highly recommend you focus on your support team. Finding a transition specialist can help reduce stress and make the process of finding the right school more efficient. Second, identify the right medical team as soon as possible. Finally, trusting your new school, even with their unfamiliar culture, can lead to a wonderful parent-teacher relationship and most importantly success for your child. The process of moving to a new country with your whole family may seem like an exciting beach vacation, but oftentimes with a child with special abilities, it can be more similar to a walk in the mountains - going up and up. Your journey will be less simple than time spent at the beach, but the view at the end is wonderful!!