Literally Every 5th Grader

I don’t know exactly when the bulletin board went up, but it was probably in January or February. I didn’t have a chance to go in to Jack’s school very often, so I wasn’t aware of it at all until a friend of mine—the mom of one of Jack’s classmates—posted about it on Facebook in March.

See, this was a bulletin board about the “Superstars” of Jack’s school—the class of 2014.

Photo of a bulletin board covered in yellow paper with a border of paper flowers. Letters spelling out "Our Superstars" and "Class of 2014" are stapled to the board along with photos of the school's fifth graders. I've blurred out the photos for privacy reasons.

I took this photo last Friday, months after it was originally put up.

Jack is part of the class of 2014, so I imagine he was excited to be called a superstar. Except…well, except for the fact that this bulletin board—which was posted within 30 feet of his classroom, insuring that he saw it every single day—included photos of all the fifth graders except for the three fifth graders in Jack’s Asperger’s classroom.

Evidently if you are in an autism classroom, you aren’t a superstar at Sligo Creek Elementary School.

My friend, who is the hero of this story, wrote on Facebook about how she saw this bulletin board often, as she visited the class regularly.

“Each visit is the same: I approach the poster with a mixture of dread and anger at what I know I will see, yet again. And then I turn around, go to the office, and politely inform the secretary that the poster that my daughter and her classmates walk past every day *still* does not include them, and maybe this whole thing started out as just an oversight but it’s been weeks now and could someone *please* add our children’s pictures to the poster so they don’t have to be reminded every single day, as they walk to their special education classroom, that their school’s administration has overlooked them and their achievements?”

She did this for weeks. She would see that the poster didn’t include our kids and she would tell the secretary and she would be ignored. When she finally told the secretary that she was going to fix the poster herself by adding a photo of our kids, she was told that she couldn’t do that because it would be defacing school property.

As you might imagine, that didn’t go over well with my friend. She made it clear in no uncertain terms that if the kids from the autism program weren’t added to the poster by the administration, she would do it herself, and if someone had a problem with that, well, that problem would become public fast.

It was early March when my friend’s daughter reported that the principal had come to the classroom to take photos of the three fifth grade students in Jack’s class.

Except…

Except again.

The photos still didn’t go up. It was mid-March when those three fifth grade students attended a birthday party together. My friend put our kids together and took a photo. On March 18th [date corrected from earlier version], she took that photo and four thumbtacks to the school and she DEFACED THAT BULLETIN BOARD.

Photo of Jack and his two 5th-grade classmatess. I've put bright colored circles over their faces, with smiley faces drawn on them because they're not my kids and I don't want to post their photos here.

Their real faces are even cuter.

*standing ovation*

This was nine weeks after she first mentioned this to the secretary. NINE WEEKS.

At some point the school went ahead and posted individual photos of each of the three fifth graders in the autism classroom, but it wasn’t done until my friend had spoken up multiple times over the course of weeks and then posted her own photo.

Photo of Jack stapled to the yellow bulletin board next to a white paper star.

I think this photo adds a lot to the superstar collage.

As far as I know, my friend and her daughter haven’t gotten an apology from the principal. I know that Jack and I sure haven’t.

I really like Jack’s program. He has done really well there. He has gone from being miserable about school and himself to being happy and full of self esteem. He has a safe place to be when school gets too overwhelming, but he spends much of his day in inclusion classes. His teachers are wonderful. His paras have been good to him. His IEP team is delightful. The other kids in his class are phenomenal. I’m very happy that he is in this program. He is very happy that he is in this program.

But damn.

I wish that my school district was able to serve my kid in his home school in an inclusion classroom. But they couldn’t. They couldn’t or wouldn’t give him the support he needed, so we found another option, one that seemed to work. The thing is, segregation of students has limitations. Even though my kid has been well served in his program, he is obviously seen as less than in the eyes of the administration. These kids do not seem to be the principal’s priority.

If you read here, I’m sure you know why it matters that all kids are included in all parts of school life. It seems so obvious to me, yet it is clearly not obvious to the people who kept moving “post photos from the Asperger’s class” to the bottom of their to-do list.

Every child has an intrinsic worth. Every child has a right to belong. Every child has a right to be treated with respect. Every child has a right to be included, not just by peers and teachers, but by the people who lead the school and set the tone for everyone in the building.

I was furious when I heard about this bulletin board from my friend. I am still furious as I write this. It breaks my heart that people who work with students with disabilities day in and day out still forget that they matter and that they have thoughts and feelings and desires and complex inner lives.

If you doubt that, check out this essay that Jack brought home last week about 5th grade photo day. The 5th grade all wore their special “class of 2014″ shirts on the same day and sat for a photo of the whole grade. Jack remembered all by himself what day he was to wear the shirt and excitedly sat for the photo.

Photo of a small section of Jack's essay titled "2014 School Picture." The full text is below.

Jack wrote about the day. Full text is below.

“2014 School Picture: On June 3rd, I was so excited for the 5th grade picture. I couldn’t wait for it. All the 5th grade, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM, were in the picture. It was so awesome, I could not wait for it. I was in the 3rd row closest to the camera, very close to the flash, so it could get a good angle of me. I couldn’t be forgotten in Sligo Creek Elementary pictures with me in one, especially this one and the graduating class of 2014. [Classmate one] and [classmate two] were close to me, and they were good friends. Lots of people I knew were there, some were close to me and some weren’t. Everyone else seemed to be prepared, as I was thoroughly prepared. That was the best day of my life!”

Read that and tell me that it doesn’t matter if Jack’s photo wasn’t on the superstar board. Read that and tell me that putting my kid’s photo up was “defacing” the bulletin board. Read that and tell me that the principal was doing her best by my kid and those in his class. Read that and tell me that Jack doesn’t understand inclusion.

“I couldn’t be forgotten.”

“All the 5th grade, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM, were in the picture.”

“That was the best day of my life!”

In terms of injustice toward disabled people, this is probably not that big a deal. But to my kid and to the kids in his class, it is a huge deal. Remember that. Even the little things matter.

Windows to Their Brains

This week for White Knuckle Parenting, I wrote about how much I love going through my kids’ backpacks at the end of the year and seeing all the work they’ve done at school. It really is one of my very favorite things. Reading through my kids’ work leaves me honestly kind of breathless and amazed at what is going on in their brains.

Those papers are like a little window into what they do all day when they’re at school and I am so grateful to be able to peek through that window. If you are so inclined, I’d love for you to peek through that window as well.

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Sadly, the window to Sam’s brain is a little smaller than Jack and Quinn’s because his work is more, “Wow, my kid wrote a really amazing essay on Shakespeare,” rather than, “Let me take a photo of this adorable essay Jack wrote about winter where the letters are having a snowball fight.”

"My favorite time of year is winter because epic snowball fights...You can go sledding...Go build a snow fort!...Make a snow catapult! That is why I like winter."

“My favorite time of year is winter because epic snowball fights…You can go sledding…Go build a snow fort!…Make a snow catapult! That is why I like winter.” Mental note: Beware Jack in the winter.

Sam did, however, have a few nice visual pieces of work for me to show you, including his most excellent historical children’s book that he wrote about a pioneer family moving west.

IMG_0006His book was fantastic. It was full of facts and drama and humor (his gold-prospecting main character: “I wasted a week looking in small holes in the ground. Unless the price of dirt had risen, I had nothing of value.”). It also featured most excellent drawings of adorable animals.

I really like the wolf, but the pig peeking out of his pen makes me so happy I could sing. I don't know why.

I really like the wolf, but the pig peeking out of his pen makes me so happy I could sing. I don’t know why.

Almost better than the book itself though, was the “about the author” blurb Sam wrote about himself: “Samuel lives in Maryland and enjoys Shakespeare, cats, science fiction, and good memories. Traveling West is his first book.”

In comparison, Quinn’s (adorably misspelled) “about the author” blurb from his pamphlet about pteranadons is less…informational: “I like pteranodons and I have no explimation about why I’m writing about them anyway.”

He created a super awesome labeled illustration though:

Quinn's drawing of a pteranodon with the head, wings, and feet labeled.

Just in case you couldn’t figure out what was the head and what was a foot.

Jack didn’t write any author blurbs, but he did helpfully provide a list of things he is an expert at. (One of his accommodations is that he can have a scribe if he asks for one, which is why the handwriting in this photo is legible—not to say that his snowman letters were hard to read, but…)

Things I am an expert at:  1. eating  2. sleeping *3. video gaming *4. playing ro-blox  5. cuddling with mom *6. drawing *7. being lazy  8. getting sick

Things I am an expert at:
1. eating
2. sleeping
3. video gaming
4. playing ro-blox
5. cuddling with mom
6. drawing
7. being lazy
8. getting sick

I’m not entirely sure why there are stars next to numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7. I didn’t find any essays on “How to Be Lazy.” I looked. Also, you should know that Jack is an expert about a lot of things that aren’t on this list. He is really good at cuddling with me though.

As long as we’re learning about my kids, let’s go ahead and check out Quinn’s list of likes and dislikes:

"likes: cats, minecraft, hills, trampolines, gerballs, lettice, reeses cups, ice cream; hates: spiders, too cold/hot tepatuars, soda, cinamon peperments, normal toast, mosquitous, termites"

likes: cats, minecraft, hills, trampolines, gerballs, lettice, reeses cups, ice cream; hates: spiders, too cold/hot tepatuars, soda, cinamon peperments, normal toast, mosquitous, termites”

The great thing about Quinn is that, with a couple of exceptions, I could have written this list for him. I was a little confused by a couple of things on the likes list (case in point: he hates lettuce). For example, I have no idea why Quinn likes hills. I kept trying to think of another word instead of “hills” that word could be, but “mills” made even less sense, so I guess Quinn likes hills. Okay.

The hates list though? With the exception of termites, I can give you a story behind every single thing:

Spiders and mosquitoes: Everyone hates spiders and mosquitoes. C’mon.

Temperatures: Quinn is really sensitive to temperature. The quickest way to send him into a meltdown is to force him outside on a hot day. Also, flash back to every photo I’ve ever posted here that features Quinn wearing my coat. There are a lot of them. I give the little man a point for self-awareness.

Soda: This one time at a birthday party, there was Sprite in pitchers on the table and my kids thought it was water and they drank it and started screaming about the “sour water.” I felt extremely virtuous for having non soda-drinking kids. As far as my kids are concerned, bubbles are something you blow out of a wand, not something you drink.

Cinnamon peppermints: Quinn really likes peppermints and is always extremely grabby when they come with the check at a restaurant. Sadly, cinnamon peppermints look almost exactly like regular peppermints—even as little chewed up bits get spit out all over a table in disgust.

Normal toast: Quinn likes toast with cinnamon sugar on it. (I know. Considering the item just above it on the list, this is highly ironic.)

Let’s let Quinn and his weird little self rest for a while and head back over to Jackland and the drawings he had to create for vocabulary words. One of my favorites is the drawing he created for the word “empathy.”

"I know you are angry." I wonder what his first clue was.

“I know you are angry.” I wonder what his first clue was.

I also like Jack’s answer to what he wants to be when he grows up: “When I grow up, I am going to be an inventor, because robots/lasers are cool. A second reason is you get to build cool stuff. The last reason is your robot could do your homework/chores for you.”

Here’s something—what if he invented an inventing robot and that robot did all of his inventing for him?

Or he could just have his assistant do all the work.

Or he could just have his assistant do all the work.

And as long as we’re on the topic of science, let’s see how Quinn illustrated the “science” tab of his data notebook:

it's raining cats

If only he could have gotten Jack to draw little angry faces on the cats.

If you’re like me, you always wonder what exactly your kids are telling their teachers about you. I have to say, through Quinn’s eyes, I come off pretty well.

Happy Home: M is for magical mother O is for outstanding overlord T is talking terrific mom H is for happy [private last name that certainly doesn't start with an "H"] E is for exilent writer R is for fast runner

Happy Home:
M is for magical mother
O is for outstanding overlord
T is talking terrific mom
H is for happy [private last name that certainly doesn't start with an "H"]
E is for exilent writer
R is for fast runner

Damn, I love that kid.

He loves me too, which I know because when he was asked to fill in an answer to the question “My favorite guest speaker was,” he wrote “my mom.”

My favorite thing in the world though is that under "my mom," Quinn had to erase where he had started to write, "I do not know what a guest speaker is."

He did have to erase where he had started to write “I do not know what a guest speaker is” first.

I have more. Oh, lord, I have more, but I’ll spare you. Sort of. I’m still going to post photos of some of the artwork they came home with. This way I will feel less bad about putting all of it in a plastic bin and not looking at it again for 30 years instead of framing it and putting it on a wall.

IMG_0108 11.44.47 PM

By Jack. I think it’s probably Minecraft related.

IMG_0114 11.51.41 PM

Also by Jack. I like this one a lot.

IMG_0107

By Sam. So pretty.

IMG_0113

By Jack. This one feels…derivative.

IMG_0119

By Quinn. He wrote about this, “I made it look gloomy and evil.” In case you’re wondering.

IMG_0141

By Jack. Those are some scary ass birds and some tall ass plants.

The end. I’ll meet you back here at the end of the next school year for the exact same post.

Sam Moves Onward and Upward

Sam graduated from 5th grade today, which means he’s headed out to middle school next year. (He also got a packet of homework from said middle school in the mail today, but I figured I wouldn’t tell him about that until next week.)

Oh, I'm sorry. I mean, "He was promoted from 5th grade..."

Oh, I’m sorry. I mean, “He was promoted from 5th grade…”

We headed off to his graduati— promotion ceremony this morning, which I thought would be cool, but no big deal. It totally surprised me when I had to fight back tears. The ceremony was really nice. Each student had written one or two sentences thanking someone who had helped them in their education and the principal read each of them as they got their certificates.

Some kids thanked their parents or siblings. Some thanked teachers or other staff. Sam thanked his instrumental music teacher for helping him to “get the courage to play a solo and become a musician.” The whole thing was really incredibly touching—up to and including the song at the end that was all about being different and being okay. [sob]

(It would have been more touching had the jerk in front of me not held his iPad up in front of me for much of the ceremony to take video. Seriously. People who think they are more important than everyone else in the room are incredibly frustrating. This guy’s phone also rang (loudly) TWICE and then he HAD A CONVERSATION ON THE PHONE TWICE during the ceremony. It was truly obnoxious and a good lesson in why I hate most people.)

Afterward, the school had a “clap out” for the 5th graders where all the other students and the parents gathered and, well, we clapped as each student had his or her name called and they had their moment to leave the school in front of everyone.

Some kids danced across, some twirled, some were super silly. Sam set a land speed record.

Some kids danced across, some twirled, some were super silly. Sam set a land speed record.

The kids in Sam’s program have been all together in the same class for two years, so the group was pretty tight. A couple of the parents were so kind as to host a party for Sam’s class at one of their houses. It was a really nice end to the day and the year.

Plus, there were chickens at the party.

She was soft and nice. I liked her.

She was soft and nice. I liked her.

It was also at the party that I realized that the top of Sam’s head has reached nose height on me. I find this unacceptable.

To sum up:

1. Sam is a middle schooler.
2. I cry at everything.
3. Sam’s middle school is an overachieving jerk that assigns homework riiiight as the last year ends.
4. Fifth graders don’t graduate, they get promoted.
5. Don’t be a dick at promotion ceremonies.
6. If a group of kids ends a promotion ceremony with a song about being nice to kids who are different, I will dissolve.
7. I cry at everything.
8. Sam is too tall.
9. Chickens are awesome.

Three Weeks to Go

Is the end of the school year killing anyone else? I feel like I have two or three events to fit in every single day for the last three weeks of school. With three kids in three schools, that means that I don’t even get to kill three birds with one stone. I have three spring concerts. Three end of the year parties. Sixty-five field trips.

Seriously. These kids go on a LOT of field trips.

That doesn’t even include Geo Bowls, regular volunteer gigs, and 504 meetings.

This week alone, there was that great concert at Jack’s school, a field trip for Jack and a field trip for Quinn, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Sam’s fifth grade class.

I have to tell you, I think the play wins for best event of the week. It was phenomenal. Sam’s teacher created this fantastic 40-minute adaptation of The Tempest that the entire class took part in. It was absolutely amazing.

I took both Jack and Quinn out of school so they could go with me to watch, partly because I wouldn’t have gotten home in time to pick them up from school after the play and partly because they really wanted to go.

I wasn’t sure about their attention span and how well they would follow, you know, Shakespeare, but they both sat quietly on the floor and watched, rapt. Watching them in the audience was nearly as good for me as watching Sam in the play.

I don't have great photos of Sam in the play, but trust me, he was a star.

I don’t have great photos of Sam in the play, but trust me, he was a star.

I was beyond impressed by this fifth grade class. Every one of them did so well. Afterward, I could barely restrain Jack until the audience (made up of the other classes in Sam’s school) left because he was all, “I want to go hug Sam!”

(I did too.)

Methinks Jack was a little starstruck.

Methinks Jack was a little starstruck.

It was all very cool. Also, I feel I should let you know that I didn’t even read Shakespeare until I was in 9th grade. Kids these days.

After yesterday’s theater experience, today I chaperoned the second grade field trip to the Natural History Museum. Parts of it were a lot of fun. Quinn made it about 3/4 of the way through before he melted down.

I think I took this photo on the cusp between "Field trips are fun! I am having a great time!" and "I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW."

I think I took this photo on the cusp between “Field trips are fun! I am having a great time!” and “I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.”

Quinn pretty seriously lost his shit right in the middle of the dinosaur exhibit. Poor guy.

Before we embark on next week’s many elementary school adventures, we’re talking a little Memorial Day weekend vacation to Hershey Park. This will be my kids’ first time at an amusement park. I imagine that is will go spectacularly.

Spectacularly good or spectacularly bad, that remains to be seen.

Honestly, considering my family, we’ll probably have a little bit of both. And that’s perfectly all right by me.

In Dreams

Ahem.

I would like to do a little bragging about Sam for a minute. He has been playing flute for a couple of years now and today at his school’s spring concert, he had his first solo. He has been practicing really hard. He was having a little trouble for a while, but after we figured out that his flute needed to be adjusted—not him—it all came together.

See Sam perform In Dreams from Lord of the Rings at his concert. (Also see my finger in front of the lens.)

I’m so proud.

Sam As Sibling

There is one thing I forgot to tell you about my presentation at Sam’s school last week.

See, Sam is such a wonderful kid and I don’t know that he always believes that, so I took this opportunity to say some nice things about him in front of his class. The book the class had read, Rules, is specifically about a sibling of a kid with autism, so lobbing some nice words Sam’s way was well within the subject matter at hand.

It looked like I was talking to the class at large, but, in fact, I was talking to Sam.

I told them that Sam sometimes ends up with extra responsibility. That he sometimes has to take care of Quinn if I’m chasing Jack down. (For example, the other night at Quinn’s school’s reading night where I looked up and found Jack gone. When I found him two hallways away (kid is fast), he said he was going to the car. I’m guessing that the room was too much for him.)

I told them that Sam sometimes has to help with Jack as well—and that Jack looks up to Sam.

I told them that Sam has patiently spent a ton of time in waiting rooms and used to do his homework there more often than at home.

I said that it can be hard to have a sibling with autism because sometimes they do embarrassing things, and he nodded.

I told the class that Sam has been a wonderful leader and teacher to his brothers and that he has always gone out of his way to include his brothers and that he is wonderful for that. I talked about how Sam does a really lovely job explaining Jack to his friends.

I’m hoping that while I was telling his classmates these things, that Sam heard me telling him that I see him. That I really, really SEE how good he is.

Because, oh lord, he is so good.

*****

I also wrote about Sam at White Knuckle Parenting today, where I wonder if gifted programs are too much pressure or just right. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t have the answer.)

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.