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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Bullying

I have been wanting to share thoughts on this topic, but it’s just so massive and painful.

Today I saw this link shared on Facebook.

Aren’t You A Little Short To Be A Stormtrooper? The Passing of the Armor to A Bullied Little Girl

She writes, “Allison is eleven years old.  She loves Spiderman and Star Wars.  The other kids mock her for carrying a Spiderman lunch box.   Allison is taunted, ostracized, and even physically attacked by her peers.”

Seriously?  Seriously?  This is still happening? I mean, it was bad enough that the little boy was bullied for bringing a My Little Pony lunchbox to school, but that one didn’t surprise me (as much as it angered me).

*sigh*

I’ve heard people say these kids shouldn’t be allowed to have/do certain things because it makes them targets.  Because bullying is inevitable and they should be taught to fit in more.  “They’re just asking for trouble.”

NO.

Why can’t a boy use a “girly” lunchbox?  Why can’t a girl have a geeky lunchbox?  Why can’t an autistic child flap his hands in public?  Why can’t a girl walk down the street holding hands with another girl?

Because other people are going to laugh or think they’re weird or tease them or physically assault them?

HOW IS THIS THE VICTIMS’ FAULTS?

No.  I’ve had enough.  We need to be teaching the PERPETRATORS, not the victims.  We need to be changing THEIR behavior.  Making THEM act more appropriately to fit in with society.

Bullying is not okay.  I don’t care how “weird” a kid looks.  I don’t care how unique or unusual they are.  Because you know what?  We are all unique individuals.  And that should be celebrated, not squelched.

And you know what we call it when it happens outside of school? Hate crimes.   People are even killed.  This is serious stuff, people.

And you know what?  I’m sick of the nonsense coming out of my own “Christian camp.”  I’m all for respecting the fact that God created men and women to be different in some ways. But these “differences” the kids are being bullied for?  Those are cultural gender norms, not God’s.   Like Sunnie, the little girl who got kicked out of her Christian school for being a tomboy.  The school told her grandparents that they can refuse students who are, “Condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”  Because she’s causing confusion amongst students as to whether she’s a girl or boy.  By the way, Sunnie says she knows she’s a girl.  We’re not even talking about a transgender child here.  Just one who was told that “her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity.” (Quotes and info from this Daily Mail article)  (OH, and the thing that really drove me mad?  I read that she originally cut off her long hair when she was three to donate it to cancer patients.)  I’ll tell you what, me and my two close friends are some of the biggest tomboys I’ve ever met.  And I can assure you that all three of us are very much heterosexual.  We respect that God made us women, but we don’t feel the need to be “girly” in the way our society expects of us.

No princess dresses for me.  I was Peter Venkman.

No princess dresses for me. I was Peter Venkman.

In my field, people talk a lot about getting autistic kids to have more “age-appropriate” interests.  They would say that my 10-year-old client shouldn’t be watching videos aimed at preschoolers and playing with his Thomas trains all afternoon.   I agree that developing “age-appropriate” interests makes it a heck of a lot easier to relate to peers and make friends.  But trying to take away these special interests is cruel.  This is a great time for you to go read this blog post, “The Obsessive Joy of Autism.”

So yeah, if I had a kid who was doing something that made him or her a target, I might even encourage them to tone it down if it was a matter of safety and the thing itself wasn’t huge to them.  But that’s like putting a  band-aid on a very huge, infected wound.  It’s only temporary.

We need to be teaching children to respect and love diversity.  To understand that not everyone is just like them, and to realize that this is what makes the world so darn cool.  To treat every human being they meet with respect.  I know it’s not easy.  It’s easier to try to make quirky kids fit in.

Recently I read this blog post and I wanted to share it here.  This should be required reading for all children:

A Bully’s Story: An Open Letter to the Middle Schoolers that Called my Son with Autism a “Faggot”

While you’re off reading that, I’ll be returning my attention to the feminine art of quilting.  I’m currently working on the Shredder, from the 80’s Ninja Turtles cartoon.

The Shredder quilt block

Ordinary Acts of Bravery

Today I was forced to confront scars I still have from my childhood experiences.

At work I have been stuck in a situation where I don’t agree with how a student is treated by the adults, yet I don’t feel like it is my place to address it.  It isn’t my classroom (my agency emphasizes to us that we are guests in these classrooms), it isn’t my client. . . but my heart aches for this kid.  A woman I work with was actually crying about it the other day.

One of my client's visuals from last year.

One of my client’s visuals from last year.

Why haven’t I said anything?

1. It’s not my place; it’s not my classroom; it’s not my client.
2.  I have “fear of man” issues.
3. I have no authority there.
4. I’ve tried modeling appropriate interventions and making subtle comments, which have been dismissed.
5. I give people the benefit of the doubt, and at first I wasn’t sure how this child was behaving in other settings, and if stricter interventions were maybe appropriate. (I’ve seen enough to say now that they are not.)
6. I don’t have the social skills to diplomatically start that kind of confrontation. . . I need to continue working with these people, and I am afraid of “rocking the boat” and creating a hostile environment.
7. I thought about printing out articles and leaving them in there, or filing a “bullying report” to the principal, but there are only a few adults who would know about it, so I couldn’t pull off a true anonymous action.

But then today, in considering talking to a teacher about it, I realized another deep reason.

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I became painfully bored in school in 4th grade, so my parents and I decided to try the local Christian school, where we were told I would be able to work at my own pace.  I wasn’t, actually.  But worse than that, I was no longer with peers who had known me for years.  I was the new kid in a small school where the kids had known each other since preschool and weren’t kind to outsiders.  This is where the bullying began.  It was never physical, just verbal and exclusion.  Because I wasn’t getting much more academically out of it, we decided I’d go back to my public school to get re-established with my class before we went to the junior high, where the four elementary schools combine.  Out on that blacktop play yard (that I had struggled to photograph years before) we had recess.  And I saw three girls, one of whom had been my best friend in kindergarten, being teased.  I had just come from a year of knowing what it felt like to be the outsider, to be teased.  So I tried to stand up for them.  And it backfired brilliantly.  I became the fourth target, and I stayed one.

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What does this have to do with today?

My 6th grade teacher was standing there.  Every day.  She was over by the door, watching the kickball game or chatting with another teacher.  She was there.  She should have seen.  She should have heard.  She did nothing.  And I thought, “What good would it do to tell a grown-up?  Won’t it just make it worse if they try to tell them to stop?”  So I kept quiet.  I rarely talked to my mom about what was going on, because she would have talked to the teacher, who I was afraid wouldn’t do enough and things would be worse instead of better.

Fast-forward.  I still have no faith that the powers-that-be will help.  I’m afraid it will just make it worse.  I’m afraid.

I’m afraid.

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A few weeks ago I read the Divergent Series.  That could be another blog post, since I found the topics of genetics and society pertinent to the issue of autism. . . but for now I’ll just warn any other sensitive souls away from reading them.  I did not like the ending.   Regardless, today I was reminded of a quote from the Dauntless faction’s manifesto:

“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

After months of getting extremely emotional about this situation, and even asking for prayer from my Bible Study group, I decided to talk to a trusted teacher.  Not only do I greatly respect her, but I knew that she would agree that what was going on was not okay.  Today my schedule opened up to chat with her while her students were at gym class.  She validated my thoughts and feelings.  She said she would ask another educator for advice about the situation without naming names, and she would let me know what the next step should be.

I’m finally taking another stand against bullies.  But this time I have a teacher in my corner who is going to do something about it.