My Message to the 4th Graders

This is a post I’ve been wanting to type up for over a year now.  In 2015, I was working with an autistic boy for the third year in a row.  I was a TSS (therapeutic support staff), which meant I spent a lot of time with him both at his school and his house, working on behavioral interventions and doing lots of documentation. (For a little more detail about my job as a TSS, see the post “Crisis of Faith.”)  He had a LOT of hours.  Over those three years I not only got to know him and his family and nurses well, but I came to know and love a lot of his classmates.

His classmates were, for the most part, awesome.  This was a kid who would have super-scary aggressive meltdowns, but after it was over his classmates would still invite him to play at recess or help him follow instructions in the classroom.

Friends on a field trip

Friends on a field trip

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In the middle of those years, I had another client, up at the middle school.  In his classroom, there was a boy I’ll call “Hunter.” On my very first day, I suspected that Hunter was on the spectrum, too.  (My gay sister has excellent gaydar. . . do we have an accepted made-up word yet for autism-radar?)  Hunter was the kind of kid who had a lot of trouble socially, and unlike my little client at the elementary school, it wasn’t obvious to his peers that he was struggling.  They just sensed Hunter was different, and got annoyed when he’d be bossy or a “know it all,” and socially ostracized him.  It was difficult for me to watch, especially since I was still in that first year of my self-diagnosis, and I was reflecting so much on my own childhood.

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Back to that first client’s class.  I had seen first sparks of middle-school-girl drama forming as these fourth graders headed towards adolescence.  I had seen how the older students were treating one another.  I had watched these little kids be so considerate of my client and the other “different” kids in their classroom, and felt the hope it gave me for the future.  I didn’t want them to lose that.

So, I did something that is entirely out of character for me, and volunteered myself for public speaking.  I must have been inspired by the guidance counselor’s weekly lessons that were supposed to teach the kids emotional intelligence skills (identifying and handling their emotions, showing empathy, stopping bullying, etc.).  She was occasionally busy and couldn’t come do the lesson, which meant the classroom teacher lost that hour of prep time she had been depending on.  One of those days, I suggested I could teach the kids about autism.  Mrs. C loved that idea, so I let the ideas run repeatedly through my head and wrote my main points out on note cards.  I kept those cards in my bag, and the next time the guidance counselor cancelled, I was ready.  Or, as ready as I ever am to talk in front of people.

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It’s been a long time since that day, so I won’t be able to remember it word-for-word, or remember the excellent comments that Mrs. C and the students shared during our discussion.  I wish I had taken notes on those, because the kids really interacted with me.  But here is what I’ve reconstructed from those note cards.

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At my house, we have a Wii, and we have a PlayStation 3.  If I put my MarioKart disc in the PlayStation, will it work?

“No!”

So, my PlayStation is broken?  Or the disc is broken?

“No.”

[I explained that the two game systems have different operating systems.  I tried also making the Windows/Mac comparison that I originally saw explaining this idea, but they weren’t as familiar with computer systems.]

A lot of you have seen me wear earplugs in the cafeteria.  Why do I do that?

“Because it’s too loud.”

But wait. . . if it’s “too loud,” why isn’t everyone wearing earplugs?

[discussion]

So, do you mean we each have our own “too loud”?  We can experience the same thing in different ways?

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In my psychology classes, we were warned that sometimes you learn about something and start diagnosing all of the people around you with that thing – don’t do that!

[I projected the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD on the board, and tried to give a quick 4th-grade-level explanation of each section, with examples]

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Where does autism come from?

I know that you guys have been learning about “traits” in your science class.

We know that autism can be inherited.  It runs in my family.

Our environment is also going to play a part in how people with autism develop, how bad some behaviors are, how they learn to cope.

Just like every kid.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Some of you are awesome at basketball, but not soccer.  Some of you are bad at memorizing multiplication facts, but awesome at geometry.  Some of you are awesome at understanding what others are feeling, and being kind when they need it.

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“Different operating system” does not equal “broken.”

That’s what I want you guys to understand about autism.

It doesn’t mean he’s sick.  It doesn’t mean she’s stupid.  It doesn’t mean he’s broken.

He or she has a different operating system than most people.  The way they experience the world can be different, and so they may react differently.

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You guys have been learning about empathy, and how it’s so important.

When you have a different operating system, it makes it harder to understand how another person is thinking and feeling.  Because if you were in their situation, you would not be thinking and feeling that way.

What are some of your favorite smells?

If you see me at a seafood restaurant, I’m going to look disgusted and unhappy.  You might not be able to figure out why – because to you, the place smells awesome and you can’t wait to eat.  But I hate the smell of seafood.

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In my kitchen at home, my mom has always had a little sign by our kitchen sink.  I see it every day.  It says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle.”

I’ve been so impressed with you guys and the other kids in this grade who I’ve gotten to observe and know these three years.  You do so much to be kind and include other kids.  That is really special.  Not all kids are like that.  And I don’t want you to lose that.

Stay kind.

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When I was growing up, I had a really hard time reading other people, and they had a hard time understanding what I was thinking.  I’d feel happy but wouldn’t look it.  I didn’t make a lot of eye contact.  I was obsessed with dinosaurs, Ghostbusters, and Ninja Turtles.  I couldn’t color until all 96 crayons were in meticulous rainbow order.  Before I could read, my mom had to read my favorite TV show’s episode title when it came on the screen, or my day would be ruined.  She was really happy when I learned how to read!  I wore my socks inside-out because the seam bothered me, and I hated most clothing.  Some of these things got in the way of relationships, and made school hard.

Sound familiar?

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I’m 30.

I still wear some of my socks inside out.  I’m a lot better at understanding what other people are feeling.  I still like things to be organized.  I still have a hard time making new friends.

One reason I wanted to talk to you guys about this is that one day you will be 30.  You’ll meet people who have different operating systems.  Be kind.  Give them a chance.  They might make your life more interesting.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

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One thought on “My Message to the 4th Graders

  1. Pingback: Video: Amazing Things Happen | Walking Inland

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