I was there once. In your seat.
Ok fine, maybe it wasn’t your actual seat, at your actual desk and I didn't have a sea of faces staring at me waiting to learn, but, I still know what it feels like to sit in that seat to wonder…to question…to not understand. And although you may have hundreds of faces watching and waiting for you to figure them out, there is one face in your class that is familiar to me and I have had that same face looking at me waiting too. Waiting and expecting you to get it, to get him.
There was a time when, like you, I didn’t understand autism. A time when I didn't understand how autism impacted him in ways that seemed questionable. Does his new winter coat really “hurt” because of his sensory struggles or does he just not want to go outside? He can recite an entire movie, yet, he can’t tell me about his day, so is finding his words really that difficult or does he just want to watch Spongebob instead? Are changes in routine really THAT hard and he can't bear the thought of going to grandmas on a weekday because we only ever go there on weekends or does he just not want to give up Minecraft this afternoon?
Is it all really autism?
I was you. I was ignorant and as his mother, it’s shameful to admit, but, at times, I was a doubter. Yep, there, I said it and I’m betting if you haven’t said it, you have thought it. In fact, I was so skeptical at times that I used to ask the therapists, how do I know where autism ends and his stubbornness begins? The answer: you don’t.
There is no way to tell where my son’s autism begins and ends. Autism is not a continuous line with a start point and a stop point that allows you to see where it ends and where other traits, traits that may seem like stubbornness, laziness, carelessness, or even rudeness begins. Autism is intertwined in all that he is and all that he does. It does not define him, but, it is a part of him and there is no on or off switch. There is no way to really understand why one day he seems “checked in” and other days he seems “checked out” and because of that, my son wears a cloak of competence right over top of the five Hollister shirts he wears every week. That cloak can be suffocating to him and confusing to you.
How can he do a task one day and not the next? I mean, if he can read this book and write this essay, why can’t he read that book and write that essay? If he can spend hours focusing on Minecraft, but, can’t pay attention to your lecture on the Civil War for five minutes, is that autism or is he just apathetic? If he is mumbling or scripting softly to himself is his sensory system overloaded because the kid next to him wore too much cologne today or because he doesn't give a damn about finding the area of a quadrilateral? If I had the answer, I would be rich, my kid, and kids like him, wouldn’t struggle and you wouldn’t need to open a bottle of wine at the end of the school day.
Bottom line is I have to trust him, I have to believe him and I try not to doubt him because he is autistic and I'm not.
I will never know why things that were easy yesterday are hard today. Could it be the new socks he is wearing? Could it be the smell of the new floor polish the custodian used last night? Could it be your vibrant patterned shirt that is distracting him? Could it be the two hour delay that changed the schedule or the fire drill that disrupted his work? I don’t know, and honestly, he might not know either, but, because of that cloak of competence, it leads you to wonder…is it all really autism?
Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that there are times throwing out The A Word might benefit him, might help him take the easy path, because honestly, who among us doesn’t want easy the majority of the time, but, just like I have not really sat in your seat, you haven’t sat in his. And neither have I.
We have to trust him, we have to believe him, and we must try not to doubt him because he is autistic and we are not.
Many autistics do not approve of the puzzle piece as the logo for autism because they do not believe there is anything missing or puzzling about them. The logo was created by neurotypicals for neurotypicals. If you ask most people with autism, they think YOU are the mystery. And as a student, most probably don’t care if you figure out autism, they just want you to figure out them. A task that is easier said than done with a sea of faces waiting for you to get each and every one of them.
I don’t have the answers for you. Sorry. My kid might though. Rather than ask why he didn’t complete the assignment, ask what he might need to help him complete it. Rather than assume he is being lazy, ask if he didn’t understand the homework or did he just get sucked into killing more creepers in Minecraft and forgot to do it. You might get a straight answer, you might not, but, if you ask, he will at least know that in the sea of faces staring at you for 52 minutes, there is one face that is grateful you tried to really genuinely see him.
I was there once, in your seat, and some days, I still am. I empathize with you, I legitimately do. So, scooch over, and let me sit down. Maybe between my son, you and me, we can "get" him together, but, we have to trust him, we have to believe him, and we must try not to doubt him because he is autistic and we are not. As his mom, I am always here to help him and you, so, please don't ever hesitate to ask me how to get from there to here or to invite me over when you do open that bottle of wine.
Thanks for listening, thanks for trying, thanks for teaching.