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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An Autistic(?) Hero

The first thing I said to Dad as we left the movie theater was, “Wow, so he was autistic.”  Dad said he had been thinking the exact same thing.

My autism-radar started beeping when I saw his lack of eye contact talking to the dock officer about the contents of his case, but I acknowledged that it could be just because he was being deceptive.  But no, the difficulty with eye contact continued.  And there were the awkward social interactions, the special bond with animals, the admission that he didn’t really have friends at school, the awkward goodbye of the end.  That settled it.  Newt Scamander could be on the autism spectrum.

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I was excited to have a Hufflepuff featured in film, because Pottermore (v. 1.0) sorted me into that house and, after the initial revulsion, I read the welcome letter and I embraced it wholeheartedly.  I was also excited to have a Harry Potter film that I wouldn’t ruin with constant comparisons to the book it was based on.  Having the Hufflepuff hero show up with autistic traits absolutely delighted me.

As soon as we got out to the car, I began Googling “Newt Scamander Aspergers.”  It was immediately apparent that I wasn’t the only one who picked up on his traits.  The absolute best post I’ve read about Newt was written by a mom who has an autistic son, a boy who is a lot like Mr. Scamander.  Instead of quoting it at length, I’ll point you to the original:

The True Magic of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, by Melanie R. Meadors

Like she said, whether or not Newt is “officially” or intentionally autistic really doesn’t matter.  What’s awesome is that a person with autistic traits is presented in a positive light, the traits aren’t something he has to “overcome” in the film, and he makes friends who accept him as he is.  I’m officially a fan of Newt Scamander, and I’m thankful to Rowling and the filmmakers for making a person like him a true hero.

Another piece about Newt that I really enjoyed was written by Emma Lord:

On Newt Scamander, Toxic Masculinity, & The Power Of Hufflepuff Heroes

Have you seen the film?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Acceptance, Not Awareness

This past Friday I had my mid-year review at work, the first such meeting since I was hired full-time a few months ago. It was a much more in-depth evaluation than the little “here’s a paper with all 10’s circled on it, let me know if you have questions, sign here” I had at my last job.  My manager was very positive and complimentary, gently providing “growth areas”  rather than “weaknesses” or criticism.  My peers also provided a few positive comments for him to share with me.  In a summary section, he wrote something like, “She is different, and that’s a good thing.”  He does not yet know that I am autistic, but since I work in IT now, I’ve been able to be a little more authentically me than at past positions.

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This weekend I was continuing my way through the book Neurotribes, which is excellent.  The problem is, it jumps between stories so cool that I excitedly read them aloud to unwilling victims, to parts so heartbreaking that I have to put it down for a while.  I was reading the section on Lovaas and the early days of ABA, and researchers’ use of punishment.  It was so upsetting that I was stimming (a lateral hand-flapping movement) and engaging in self-injurious behavior (biting my hand) – two of the very behaviors that were physically punished in these early studies.

I talked to a person about this right after setting the book aside (I will use “they” as a gender-neutral singular here). I was so worked up after talking to them that I was still doing a lot of the rapid hand-shaking while I was preparing some coffee.  They then said, “You’d better get that out of your system by Monday if you want them to still think you’re ‘different in a good way.'”

That bothered me.  But I didn’t have the words to express to them why it hurt so much.  First, it was just the latest in a long line of comments like that throughout my life – those, “I hope you don’t do that in public,” or, “Are you going to shower before you go out?” or, “You don’t say that at school/work, do you?” kind of comments.  The ones that insinuate I haven’t yet learned how to behave “properly” around normal people, out in public.

Second, and this is very much related to that category of comment, I only engaged in that behavior because I felt safe to do so.  In my own home, with people I trust, I’m going to feel freer to behave in ways that are not seen as “acceptable” in other settings.  I’m going to complain about tasks I’ve been assigned at work, but I’m NOT going to have a bad attitude about them around my manager and coworkers.  I’m going to skip a shower when I’m staying in, but I’m NOT going to go to class with greasy hair.  I’m going to release extreme emotion nonverbally through self-stimulatory behaviors, but I’m NOT going to be as obviously autistic in the behaviors I select when I’m around people I don’t trust with that.

Third, they used something that was an extremely positive, affirming, and accepting comment about me to shame me for my autistic behavior.

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I was recently talking to another Aspie-girl about how hard it can be, living with neurotypicals.   We talked about how sometimes we trust someone with an explanation for our behaviors, or explain how we feel about something, and they end up using it against us later – even if it’s just what they see as a friendly teasing comment, it still hurts, and makes us less likely to trust again.

So, if you love someone on the spectrum, please recognize that often those “socially-unacceptable behaviors” you see are indications that the person feels safe with you.  Especially if you only see the behaviors in a “safe” setting, like the person’s home.  And please, if we trust you with an explanation of how we think and feel, don’t use it against us.

And for you autistic people reading. . . what advice should I give?  Be more careful whom you trust?  Don’t let your guard down and be so “autistic” around people?  No.  On my drive home today, Jars of Clay’s song “Inland” came on my shuffle.  The song I named this blog after. I was thinking about how even though another song on the album is my favorite, I was glad I got an “Inland” lyric inscribed on the ring I wear every day.  The words “you keep walking inland” are a constant reminder to me that I must press on, I must engage in community and relationships, I must keep trying.  I must keep walking inland – “where no man is an island.”  And so must you.  Don’t give up explaining, expressing yourself, and teaching.  Learn to live among people who are not like you, learn to communicate with them, and treat everyone with the respect and kindness you want yourself.   Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.

 

It’s the only way we will gain more acceptance. 

Inland Ring