The Otto Specht School Blog

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Parent Spotlight: Shannon Young

Stories From the Cloud Forest to Home


Since Giancarlo was diagnosed with autism at age 2, my life went off in a completely unexpected trajectory. Giancarlo is now 16 going on 17 soon. He is a wonderful young man!

When Giancarlo was a youngster, a close friend of mine with a typically developing child asked me what it was like to have a child who wasn’t developing in the way that was expected. For her, things were laid out in advance: what to expect and how to facilitate her child’s development and help him to find himself. I told her that I am also doing what I think is best to help my child to reach his potential, but that for me the system is not laid out so clearly, making for an arduous journey.

After several years of disappointment, fighting the NYC school system, we left NY for the healing space of Costa Rica’s cloud forest. I took a year’s leave of absence from work as a university English professor, and this year turned into two. We lived up in the clouds and off the grid as much as possible. There was one line of electricity threaded 200 meters through the forest with its magnificently contorted strangler fig trees (so named because they strangle the life out of the host tree) to our rickety cabin, with one sink in the kitchen, an outhouse, and outdoor shower. We loved the immersion in the natural world that occurred there, even the frequent scorpions (non deadly variety) that would come into our far from airtight cabin to escape the rains. I would sit at my computer at night, with Giancarlo in bed, researching and writing, moths flying around my head, drawn to the light of the computer screen.

I focused my attention on how to help my son’s overly sensitive system to calm and function better, cooking nourishing foods, detoxing, practicing yoga and reiki, working with reading programs, auditory integration training, etc., etc. I would shut off the breakers to the house at night so we could sleep without exposure to electromagnetic radiation. Giancarlo was schooled at the farmhouse of a talented retired school teacher expatriot from Ohio, along with other kids who didn’t fit in the public school system there. His musical talent blossomed through piano lessons with a joyful and creative classically trained pianist expat from Canada. We went regularly to the beach, a four hours’ drive down a winding rutty, gravelly road, where swimming in the ocean and walks along the beach worked their healing magic on us both.

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One of the things that really helped me about living in Costa Rica was the peaceful acceptance of the vicissitudes of life so contrary to the New York high speed, high intensity attitude, where everything seems focused on achievement and beating the competition. Costa Ricans have a saying: “Pura Vida” which roughly means, relax and live life joyfully. In Costa Rica I was able to let go of much of my anxiety about all the developmental milestones that my son was not reaching, to practice more patience and acceptance of my son - and of myself with all of my hang ups.

During these two years in Costa Rica, I became involved in a project telling stories of the Costa Rican women of the cloud forest zone; incredible stories of resilient, resourceful women who grew up with no running water or electricity, practice subsistence farming, and raise their families inundated by the incredible nature of the cloud forest. At the end of these two years, however, I had to return to the US or lose my job at the University. I could not imagine putting Giancarlo back into the throes of the NYC educational system, so I made arrangements for him to stay while I traveled back and forth to the US to teach my two semesters. During this year, I arranged a sabbatical to work on the book project I had begun during my leave of absence. In this way, I was able to resettle for a time in Costa Rica while immersing myself in visits to the fascinating women of the cloud forest. The book is now completed and under review at La Universidad Nacional of Costa Rica (the Spanish version which will be translated to English for publication in the US).

During my time in Costa Rica, I wondered perpetually about becoming one of the expats, even going so far as to purchase a piece of land in a wonderful valley, sloping down from the cloud forest. But my funds were low, and I didn’t want to give up my hard earned job as a tenured university professor. As my sabbatical was drawing to a close, I heard from a friend, Mary Holland, about a small school just upstate from NYC, called the Otto Specht School, and how much she and her son, Andy, loved it. Some phone calls and a Skype interview later,  Giancarlo and I, and our little Costa Rican dog, Phoebe, returned to the US, filled with trepidation, and knowing that if it didn’t work out, we could always return to Costa Rica.

The community and the school have been a godsend for us. It amazes me that we have found such an incredible community of like-minded, soulful people in the United States. We love the Fiber Craft Studio, the Eurythmy performances, the Christian Community Church, Fridays - eating biodynamic meals and buying biodynamic produce at the Hand and Hoe, followed by evenings of live, local musicians and dinner at the Threefold Café. Most importantly, there is Otto Specht School, filled with heart, and a staff that appreciates my son and doesn’t overly problematize him. They focus on his strengths and many talents, like his music and art, not his deficits. Giancarlo loves working on the farm and wants to be a farmer.

And so, for now, we’ve let go of our life in Costa Rica - at least full-time. We still have our piece of land, and go back for extended stays each year. Now, I am working out a study abroad opportunity to bring students from my University to Costa Rica to write up oral histories of the inhabitants of the cloud forest, continuing on from my own rewarding work with the people and place that have become such a special part of my life.

Rudolf Steiner says, as quoted in this years’ yearbook: “We must look forward with absolute equanimity to everything that may come .  . . and we must think only that whatever comes is given to us by world direction full of wisdom.” After much angst and bewilderment in my parenting role, and all the twists and turns that it has brought me, this is a profound encapsulation of what I came to understand. Life brings us precisely the challenges that we need in order to learn the things we need to learn. And without these obstacles and challenges I needed to face, I never would have found this community we now call home.