As always, thank you for being here, for being aware, accepting, kind and AWEsome!
All my heart,
Hey everyone, I know folks were looking to duplicate the poster I made for my local schools so here it is. I just ask that you respect my work by keeping The AWEnesty of Autism copyright at the bottom of the poster as well as give my niece Morgan McAfee the props she deserves for making my words and Ryan's heart look so cool.
As always, thank you for being here, for being aware, accepting, kind and AWEsome!
All my heart,
To my son's teachers,
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.
Next Monday school begins and no one is more excited about that upcoming date than Ryan. He longs for the feel of a freshly sharpened wooden pencil (#2 Ticonderoga only please) held securely in his hand, as well as the soothing, steady hum of the fluorescent lights (please Mr. and Mrs. Custodian replace any blinking, flashing bulbs as well as any super loud buzzing bulbs) and the smell of the freshly waxed classroom floors drifting through the hallways that within hours, will be replaced with the stench of hundreds of teenagers wearing fall back to school clothes on an 80 degree summer day. The routine of routine is just around the corner for my soon to be seventh grader and he will breath a big, sigh of relief having survived another "boring" summer.
Yes, as my beautiful boy happily enters the hallowed middle school doorway, movin' on up as a seventh grader, Ryan will not look back to sixth grade days gone by.....ever. I want to apologize in advance to all his former sixth grade teachers, the 6R Team, but, just like George and Louise (aka, Weezy) moved to that "deeeeluxe apartment in the skyy-hii-hiii" after they finally "got a piece of the pie", their old neighbors in Queens, Archie and Edith Bunker, became a distant memory. Ryan will remember you all fondly, but, now that he has moved on up to the East Side, chances are he won't ever look back down. Yes, in this scenario you are The Bunkers and sorry, but, chances are also good that you won't make a guest appearance in a later episode.
Try not to take it personally, you wonderful teachers who so willingly and eagerly helped my boy feel at home each and every day, this sort of love 'em and leave 'em pattern has been going on for quite some time.
Sometimes I think this behavior is a result of autism's hold on Ryan's brain and he sees little benefit in a long term relationship with someone who has fulfilled their purpose. He needed you last year, you did your job so well last year, that he no longer needs you this year, so, sayonara, end of story.
However, sometimes I think this love 'em and leave 'em attitude has nothing to do with autism and Ryan's brain, but, more to do with his heart. As I have watched my boy love and leave so many, I believe this attitude has more to do with protecting his sensitive, beautiful heart, than his atypical social and communication skills. Good byes are hard, pretending he never knew you is easier.
Ryan cries at the end of every school year, rejoicing in his success at getting closer and closer to finding his piece of the pie, but, sad that it is once again, time to move on up. Ryan truly loves the folks who helped serve him his piece of the pie, but, it's easier to just toss his pie plate aside waiting for the next bigger piece of pie than it is to get caught up in remembering all the ingredients it took to make that pie. It's not that Ryan doesn't realize the sugar, the butter, and the milk is what made his pie so sweet, it's just that eating the pie and tossing the plate aside is a lot less stressful on his overtaxed brain and a lot less painful on his ultra sensitive heart.
It has happened year after year, Ryan will pass his former teachers in the hallway and they may occasionally get a grunt or a halfhearted trying not to smile smile, but, chances are much higher that Ryan may completely ignore them. Some of Ryan's most beloved teachers have come to me at the beginning of the next school year, gripping their heart with a look of confused bewilderment in their eyes, and before the first syllable starts to from on their trembling lips, before the next beat of their abandoned heart, I know exactly what they are going to say, "Ryan just ignored me....again."
As for you sooooooooo....last year teachers, still hanging out in the 6th grade hallway of Queens, sorry, but, you are no longer needed and you have quickly been replaced since my boy has moved on up. Ryan may occasionally allow his doorman to let you visit, but, chances are you won't get a key to his new place.
I know it's hard not to take his love 'em and leave 'em attitude personally, especially for a student who has so few friends, who often stands alone in the hallway or on the playground, who for 180 days trusted you, relied on you, needed you, above anyone else, to allow you to fade away as quickly as summer break, is difficult to understand, but, inevitably, it still happens. Ryan doesn't really mean to leave you behind in Queens, it's just that Ryan struggles to find a place for the past, while he puts all his effort into movin' on up, because for kids like Ryan, it takes "a whole lot of tryin' just to get up that hill".
Trust me, this summer more than ever, I have felt the love'em and leave 'em attitude as my almost teenage son has decided he no longer needs me to tuck him in at night, snuggle him or kiss him when "WE ARE IN PUBLIC". Just last year, before he moved on up, as a 6th grader in the Queens Borough hallway, I bragged about Ryan walking hand in hand into school with me, giving me a big "I love you" hug at the bus stop and not giving a hoot about what his fellow neighbors in Queens thought about his public displays of affection with dear old mom.
This summer, I have felt more like The Bunkers, staying behind watching my boy movin' on up. Standing in the shadow of Ryan's new high rise on the East Side, as he moves on up without me...just as he should...just as I want him to....just as I feared he never would. And yet, as much as I hoped this day would come, I can't help, but, feel a little like Archie Bunker, pretending I don't care even though watching Ryan movin' on up as he repeatedly pulls away from my snuggles and kisses, feels like getting hit by the 7 train traveling from Queens to Manhattan.
I know that part of growing up means moving up...without me...yet I know that I will always be a part of Ryan's life. And on the days where I feel more like Florence the housekeeper than good old mom, I will keep in my heart the days gone by when a little hand warmed mine as we walked down the street ("IN PUBLIC"), I will touch my cheek right where his sweet little lips use to hurriedly brush across as he ran to the bus ("IN PUBLIC") and I will remember the AWE in his voice as we watched popsicle sunsets on our front porch back in the good old days in Queens, before Ryan moved on up.
So, come Monday morning, I will happily watch Ryan run, bent over, wearing new, uncomfortable not yet broken in clothes, charging at the bus like a bull, holding my cold cheek where his kisses once left my cheek warm and smelling of toothpaste. No doubt, I will shed a tear...or two. Not for my own selfish needs of hugs and kisses, but, for this AWEsome boy who is becoming more and more independent....just as he should be....just as I want him to....just as I feared he never would.
As for you glorious 6R teachers, still hanging out in the Queens Borough Hallway, remember that alone, you may have been the 2 tbs of butter, the cup of sugar, or the 1/2 cup of milk, but, combined together, you, along with every other teacher Ryan has been blessed to have, all helped my son get that elusive piece of the pie.
So, if you catch a glimpse of my boy movin' on up, through the seventh grade hallways on the East Side, keep saying hello, keep trying to reach him because I promise you, you have made an everlasting mark, even if you are ignored, you have not been forgotten. And if you keep trying, I promise, one day, you may be given just a tiny little crumb of that pie you helped bake, in the form of a smile or a quick hello, which may not be as filling as it once was, but, I hope it will still be equally satisfying.
As for me, well, just like Archie Bunker watched his former neighbor George Jefferson move on up without him, I will grumble and complain about being left behind, but, inside I will be beaming with pride hoping that one day, my boy remembers who was always by his side helping put all the necessary ingredients together before he finally got a piece of the pie. And selfishly, like any mom who loves her son and never, ever wants him to move on up without her, I will constantly remind Ryan that "as long as we live, it's you and me baby, there ain't nothing wrong with that".
Tick tock, tick tock....there are only a mere 24 hours until the school year ends, 24 hours until this mom can breath a sigh of relief that Ryan not only survived his first year of middle school, but, that he kicked butt and took names. Actually, he really didn't "take names" because names are not his strong suit, and where in the world would he "take" a name anyway? And even though I think Ryan "kicked butt" he would tell you he most certainly did not kick butt because that would be rude, violent, against the rules and a lie. So, I guess I will just say that with only hours left of 6th grade, Ryan's school year was AWEsome! Hooray!
There will be plenty of "I told you so's", from the likes of my husband, Ryan's therapists, my friends, his brother, and his former teachers. People ready to gloat that all my fingernail chewing, all my sleepless nights, all my How to Survive Middle School with an ASD Survival Guides that I created, were all for not. Gloat away folks, because no one could be happier about being wrong than me. I just wish all these gloaters would share their crystal balls with me and spare me all the anxiety that will surely roll around in August once again.
When Ryan reluctantly walked out the doors of elementary school last year at this time, anxious for what was yet to come and heartbroken for what was left behind, my biggest worry wasn't school yard bullies, getting him up at 6:15AM or the shape of the school pizza (although those were all very genuine and legit concerns), what kept me up at night on the "what if" roller coaster that is my brain, was the concern of what if Ryan, my one man, man, can't survive being placed on a middle school team. I don't meant the basketball team, the volleyball team or the debate team, I mean an academic team that consisted of five teachers for core subjects and ten other teachers for various specials. Ryan was use to one or two teachers that he had to get to know and who had to get to know him. I was AWEnestly convinced that rather than be placed on the 6R Academic Team, Ryan would have chosen to take his chances of a spike to the face on the middle school volleyball team. The pain of a volleyball spike would diminish much quicker than enduring a different teacher for nine periods each day.
I know it's probably been a while since you have done middle school math (unless of course you have a middle schooler and unlike me, you can actually help your kids with math past the second grade), so I am going toss out two equations for you. Here goes:
9 class periods+9 teachers+9 varying teaching styles+9 sets of rules=1 anxious boy
1 anxious boy=1 worried, fretting, nutsy mom
I always hated math.
Ryan isn't much of a "team" kind of guy. Being part of a team, means getting to know your teammates, understanding everyone's role on the team, and being able to interpret facial expressions, body language, and social cues that often go hand in hand with being part of a team. Autism makes all those things hard for Ryan, not impossible, but, difficult enough that he would rather stick with his one man show. Ryan is a solo sport kind of guy, he prefers having to only look out for himself and being responsible for "I" not "we". The saying goes, "There is no i in team", but, Ryan most assuredly would beg to differ (actually he probably wouldn't since there literally is no letter "i" in the word team, but, work with me here folks, it's been a long school year).
Throughout the school year, I never once heard Ryan say "we" or "team", but, he frequently and proudly used the word "I". "I made the honor roll!"...."I got a 100% on my test!"...."I handled it on my own."...."I passed."...."I understand the material perfectly". "I, I, I", not "we, we, we" and Ryan's right, he did do all those things, but, just like a pitcher may run off the mound screaming, "I threw a no hitter!", without his team's flawless defense, without his team's support, a no hitter would have been impossible. A quarterback who is patting himself on the back for having such a successful season may say, "I hold the NFL record for most completed passes." which may be true, however, without his defensive line protecting him and he receivers catching the ball, that quarterback would not have thrown a single completion.
For Ryan, whose fight or flight is so heightened, taking care of "I" makes recognizing the importance of "we" challenging. Autism makes the notion of even an academic team, seem full of unforeseen, unexpected, danger and peril. An academic team, may seem almost as dangerous as a rope team climbing Mt. Everest. The English teacher may use a stopper knot to keep her team together and safe, while the Science teacher may prefer to use prusiks on the rope, a completely different way of reaching their goal safely. These different strategies all work, but, for a child who prefers "same" getting to know all those differences and understanding them, is like free climbing Mt. Everest without a Sherpa.
A mountain climber who screams from the top of the Earth, "I climbed Mt. Everest", would have never made it to the summit without being tethered to a team, a team whose soul job is to keep each member safe, while they reach the summit. Being part of a climbing team, the team members understand the whole "you go, I go" motto, even though none of them want "to go". They understand that being tied to that team helps each climber, regardless of the differences in ability and stamina, reach their goal. Often the distance of the rope is shortened for the climber who occasionally stumbles and struggles to ascend, the climber who may struggle to see the crevasse buried beneath the snow. The members of a good rope team, know when and how to make the adjustments and keep a struggling climber close, ready to self-arrest and do whatever it takes to make each member of the team reach the summit safely...even the climber who struggles. No mountain climber can ever say "I" without the "we" of his rope team that guided him through hazardous and unpredictable terrain.
The academic team that Ryan was fortunate enough to tether himself to for his first year of middle school, kept him close and kept him safe as he found his way over the hills and peaks of the strange terrain of metaphors and figurative language, as he eased himself over algebraic methods, and happily explored the elements of the Earth's crust, all while making new discoveries on the people, climate, and culture of French Guiana. This amazing team, knew when Ryan felt safe enough, when he became more confident in his abilities and they extended the distance between themselves and him on the rope. A distance great enough to make him forget the "we" in team and happily declare, "'I' made it to the top!".
With only hours left until 6th grade comes to an end, I promise you Ryan will descend the bus steps on that last day, with tears in his eyes since ending something familiar and beginning something new is both difficult and heartbreaking for my sensitive son. With all his successes, all his accomplishments, Ryan could scream from the rooftops,"I did it, I made the Honor Roll all four marking periods and I am a seventh grader!", but, he won't because bragging isn't his thing and because climbing on the roof, untethered is as dangerous as free climbing Mt. Everest. This declaration may not be shouted from the rooftops, and chances are high that he won't even utter a single word about it, but, as his forever grateful, lifetime Sherpa, no one knows Ryan better than me, and I promise you 6R Team, he feels it, he knows it, and he believes it, all because he was tied tightly to an amazing team.
Thank you 6R Team, for pulling my son, for pushing him, for securing him, for reaching him, for teaching him, and for believing, "different, not less". Mostly, this worried, tired, about to open a bottle of wine mom, thanks this team of AWEsome teachers for not allowing my son to fall through a crack or a crevasse by providing him with just the right amount of rope that gave him the strength and the confidence, to reach the top and to proudly find the "i" in team.
"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher."
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touched by Autism.
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Definition of Awe: