Sunday, December 2, 2012

Autism, the 5th Grade, and a Lot of Hope

One of my missions in life is to spread the idea of autism awareness and acceptance and I have found that it is easiest to spread propaganda to children, so I am always on the lookout for opportunities to go into classrooms and talk.

I was poking through Sam’s desk at his fifth grade back-to-school night earlier this school year when I heard something that made my ears perk up. The teacher was running through some of the things they’d be doing over the course of the year and he mentioned that they would be reading a book called Rules, about a girl with an autistic brother.

The reason, of course, that I perked up is because I KNOW A KID WHO HAS AN AUTISTIC BROTHER! I went home and ordered the book so I could read it ahead of time to have an idea of what he was going to be learning so I could either support or combat the message.

The book was okay. It did have a nice message and I think it is worthwhile for kids to read, but the kid with autism was the least fleshed out character in the book. (The phrase “fleshed out” kind of freaks me out, but I can’t think of anything better, so I’m sticking with it. Other words that upset me: “slacks” (as in pants), “gum” (gum in general bothers me), and “wad.” *shudder*)

I asked Sam if he would be cool with me going into the class to talk about Jack and autism and if it would be okay with him if I told his classmates that I have autism as well. He told me yes and then immediately went in on his own and asked his teacher if I could come in to give a talk.

Several months later, when the class was actually reading the book, I contacted the teacher, we talked a little, and I was all set to go in last Friday to TALK ABOUT AUTISM.

You know how sometimes something sounds like a great idea until the night before at 1 am when you’re desperately trying to figure out what to present and your mind is a blank and you start to panic, because these fifth graders are scary.

See, I’ve done these talks before, but I’ve done them in front of kids who know Jack or educators who have a working knowledge of kids with autism. These particular fifth graders were more scary than the first, but less scary than the latter. These fifth graders are Sam’s highly gifted class, so they’re a fun little quirky bunch themselves, but they are clever enough to be intimidating.

I’m not going to keep you in suspense; it went great. Sam’s teacher had given me 45 minutes and a list of questions from the kids. The list was great, because I am a completist and in my head I knew that I had to compress the science, ethics, and culture of autism into 45 minutes, minus Q&A. The questions focused me a little bit and let me eliminate some subtopics.

To tell you a little something about this group of kids, I should tell you that I got there ten minutes early, when half the class was at instrumental music and half the class was working quietly at their desks. And when I say “working quietly,” I mean that it was, like, “children of the corn creepy” quietly. These kids are pretty badass.

Eventually everyone showed up and I started talking. The smartest thing I did was to tell them that they could ask questions at any time and about anything, because they did and it turned what could have been a long, boring talk into a really interesting discussion. It was awesome. I love these kids.
I also got their attention right up front when I told them I had a kind of autism called Asperger’s. I could almost hear the clicks of their eyes falling into place on me. There I was, a real-life autistic person, right in front of them! It turns out that some of them also knew autistic people in their own lives…friends, siblings of friends, an uncle in Connecticut…plus some of them had met Jack. It was cool that they were able to ask questions from their own experience.

I had considered using MOM-NOS’ hair dryer/toaster analogy but decided against it for this group. I did briefly use Four Sea Stars’ different video game platform analogy to show them how typical brains and autistic brains are more alike than different, but that they do things differently.

As in Four Sea Stars’ analogy, I called all of them Nintendo Wiis (I think Wiis are more social than other gaming platforms) and I said I was an Xbox and then I talked about how Wiis are better at some things and Xboxes are better at some things, but that it can be hard for the Wiis to talk to the Xboxes and vice versa.

I really think they got it, but there was some dissent because certain people wanted to be iPads and then I had to call Sam a Playstation because he was being difficult, but I think it all kind of proved my point.

Mostly what I did was walk through the common components of autism: social difficulties, communication impairment, repetitive behavior and all that that entails, and sensory issues. I went into details about all of those things and addressed the kids’ questions when they came up and tried to explain the why of it all.

One of the questions the kids had sent home ahead of time was, “What is it like to have autism?” I hope that I was able to answer that question with some of the details and anecdotes that I shared with them. Somewhere in there, I even talked to them a little bit about autistic culture, such as how autistic people have a custom of flapping their hands to indicate applause instead of clapping.

Naturally the kids had asked questions about causes and cures and treatments and the more practical aspects. They had also asked when autism was first recognized, which was so interesting to me, precisely because that never would have crossed my mind to tell them. Overachievers, every single one of these kids.

I loved that these kids were very interested in and open to the idea of autism as not just debilitating. In fact, one of the questions that had come home was, “What are some of the advantages that autistic people have over ‘normal’ people?”

Those who knew people with autism had some very specific questions. One kid wanted to know why the kid he knew was aggressive and hugged so hard. One of Sam’s friends had a question about Jack rolling around in his blanket on the floor the first time he’d come over to our house.

I had asked Jack what he wanted me to tell the kids about his autism and he said, “my humor,” which…AWESOME, right? So I told them that and explained that maybe the biggest advantage of autism is seeing things in a different way, which lets you come up with some great ideas, humorous or otherwise. Then I mentioned Albert Einstein, as you do.

Sam’s teacher had recently read the new New York Times Magazine story, “The Autism Advantage” (don’t wreck the ending; I haven’t read it yet) and spoke a little bit about that. Then he brought up The Big Bang Theory and I’m pretty sure that every kid in the class is going to go home and make their parents let them watch it (that’s what happened at my house) and 15 references to “coitus” later, I’m going to start getting phone calls. (I suggest letting your kids watch the Penny Flower episode; it’s one of the less inappropriate ones.)

I just had a couple of minutes left so it was time for my big finish. My last few sentences are some of the most important in my whole presentation, so I wanted to make sure I got to them.

“I want to tell you how to be a friend to someone with autism,” I said. “You can be a friend by including them, by understanding if they need extra time or if they are insistent on doing things a certain way. You can acknowledge people with disabilities and give them a warm smile. You can assume that they are intelligent.

“But mostly what you can do is create an environment where it is okay to be different. You can do that by being friends with people who are different or by defending them and treating them and their ideas with respect.

“Or you can do it by being different yourself.

“I look around this room and see an amazing group of people. Each of you are different and unique and special and wonderful. I want you to make your classroom and your school and your neighborhood and your families places where it is okay to be different. Know that YOU can make a difference. Go forth and be unique. That will make the world a better, safer place for people with autism.”

I stopped there and I thanked them. I thanked them for their questions and conversation. I thanked them and the teacher for being such a good audience and for letting me come in and talk to them. I thanked them for being such an open audience.

And then? Then? Oh, my God, they started flapping their hands.

A few people had started clapping, but more than half the class flapped their hands over their heads instead. And once the clappers saw this, they stopped clapping and started flapping as well.

There are absolutely no adequate words to describe what I felt in that moment. I mean, joy obviously. And hope, God,  yes, hope. But I can’t describe the amazement I felt. They got it. They really got it.
On the drive home, I realized something: THAT is why I keep volunteering to do these talks. THAT is why I am willing to muscle through the anxiety that I suffer before these things. THAT is why I believe that my mission to spread autism awareness and acceptance matters.

Because I believe what I told them: I believe that they can make a difference. I believe that one person at a time, moved ever forward by ripples, this message will spread. I am so proud and grateful to get to be a part of it.

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