A Crowded Nightmare

The nightmare happened on a day near the end of the school year for a 6th-grade boy with autism. There was something different going on at school that day. A break from their regular routine to attend a gym competition. For him, any change in routine, good or bad, can be another nightmare.

The competition was among the older grades. I was taking part by helping the coach take score. I noticed him coming in with panic written all over his face. He looked around as if he had stepped out of a car and found himself in a far away place. His world had been thrown off kilter. I felt empathy because I had been in a similar boat many times.  Routine is essential to me too.  I just have coping skills he doesn’t have.  I don’t think it was just the crowd, but the hustle and bustle of basketball shooting, frisbee throwing, and relay racing. There were whistles blowing and kids roaring with boos and applause.

The teacher aide recognized he was in sensory overload. She had him sit down with some of his classmates who were taking all the commotion in stride.  In no less than a minute, he got up and stepped out on the gym floor spinning in circles. He made an indescribable sound but a familiar one to those in his inner circle. This is his own unique distress call when he is potentially in meltdown country.  When he almost ran into a student who wasn’t steady on her feet, the teacher brought him back to the sidelines. He sat there for maybe five minutes. That was as long as he could take before getting back up and spinning once again on the floor.

This time the aide brought him back but she sat down on the floor with him. She gently rubbed his arms and hands to soothe and reassure him it was okay. Her idea worked and he calmed down enough to remain seated.

Although he could pass for a high school football player, he is a gentle soul. Even in meltdowns if he physically hurts anybody, it is himself.  After the last contest, she had no problem whatsoever getting him to go back to the classroom. He was the first one in line as his class walked back.  He was more than ready to return to the familiar place and resume the routine. His crowded nightmare, at least the one that day, was over.

Ancient in their Eyes

I was subbing for a special education aide at an elementary school.  I was somewhat a familiar face to the students since it was my sixth visit to the class.  I knew almost all the students by name which is no small thing for me.  I have a bad habit of names going in one ear and out the other instead of sticking between my ears.
Two of the boys, in particular, acted so enthused to see me again.  The entire school day they treated me as if I was some celebrity.  I am not used to male admiration.  The last male admirer I can recall was a fella named John who was in my first-grade class.  Now that was, give or take, a half-dollar’s worth of years ago.  I thought to myself that too bad both of these two boys were born in this century instead of the 1950’s.
They both asked me a ton of questions.  I felt like I was a guest on the Dr. Phil show.  One of them asked what year I came into this world.  I answered truthfully and was rewarded with them both informing me I was old.  I said, “Hey, guys, I’m not ancient.  I was subbing at the same elementary school I attended when I was your age just the other day and the building is still standing.”
The teacher got on to them for even asking the question as well as their not-so-tactful response.  They both apologized.  I couldn’t be mad at them.  I’m pretty much immune to it since they aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, of students to ask me the age-old question. I’ve come to expect I am ancient in their eyes.
A week later, I was at another school subbing in a school gym where I had a different experience.  Out of the blue, without any encouragement from me, a boy came up and said to me, “You look nice today”.  I asked him to repeat it since I wanted to be sure I heard him right.  His comment made my day.  Well, with kids and their observations and questions, I have to take the sour with the SWEET.

Children Need to be Heard Too

I was subbing for an elementary school P.E. coach’s sidekick.  The first half of class was walking laps outside around the baseball diamond.  While the coach watched sitting on an upside down bucket with his speaker phone, I walked the laps.  I thought my walking might inspire the kids to walk or run and not hide behind a tree to get out of the exercise.  With my gray hair, the kids think I’m the same age as Old Father Time.

A 1st-grade girl came up and took my hand.  Unlike me, the girl didn’t have a problem starting and carrying on a conversation.  We had an unspoken deal.  She did most of the talking and I did most of the listening.

She had a good reason for wanting to talk.  Her Grandpa passed away just 2 days earlier.  It wasn’t so much sadness I heard in her voice but curiosity.  Perhaps it was her first encounter with the death of a loved one.  He had strokes and as she put it, “he just died”.  She didn’t even know he was in the hospital until after he had passed away.  She had observed that her Grandma still had his clothes.  Other than telling her I was sorry about his passing, I just listened.  She just needed someone to talk to and that someone that day was me.

She didn’t want to go off and play in the playground as the other kids did when finishing their last lap.  She couldn’t hold up as long as some of the other kids because of her asthma.  It does get in her way sometimes.  It is routine for her to use the asthma inhaler as soon as she gets home from school.  She said pretty much her whole family had asthma.

I told her I had Asperger’s.   The word wasn’t familiar to her and I didn’t go into details about it.  She said she can’t run as much as her friends without wearing out.  I told her sometimes I am not up to being with people.  She said sometimes asthma gets her out of doing stuff she doesn’t want to do such as strenuous activities. I told her Asperger’s sometimes gets me out of going to parties.

His Sidekick Sub

Due to an elementary school coach’s sidekick having to be out for two weeks, the six-foot-tall coach/former college football player had something a tad better than no sidekick at all – me.  A substitute is at least an extra pair of eyes and someone to watch the kids when one has a nature call.

We had a few things in common.  For one thing, we graduated from the same high school.  I was in the class of 1977 and he was in a class that graduated in the following century.  We both value exercise as a means to improve our health and mental well-being.  He tosses a football and I hit a tennis ball for stress relief after a school day of spending time with pretty much the entire student body.  It beats my having a meltdown and possibly tossing or tearing up my own stuff.

I did my best to help him out.  I showed up at the school gym on time and wasn’t late coming back from lunch.  He monitored the kids playing outside on the tennis/basketball courts on one side of the field and I monitored the playground on the opposite side.  I helped maintain order for the indoor games.  Most importantly, I left the toilet seat up in the coach’s office restroom.

An amusing story was my encountering an odd problem in the restroom.  The light switch didn’t work.  I had to use my “smart” watch’s flashlight application which was sufficient enough that I didn’t fall over the “john”.  I noticed later the light was on but I didn’t dare ask what’s the deal with the light.  The common sense thing would be to ask but it remained just a thought because a lack of common sense is a common trait for those on the autism spectrum like myself.  Either I continued to go in the dark or I figured it out myself.

I did solve the mystery when I spotted another light switch that did the trick.  I didn’t feel bad, though, about not asking the coach for enlightenment.  I was just relieved the coach didn’t catch me coming out of the dark restroom and saying something like, “Wouldn’t it be easier with the light on?”

With the weather cooperating, most of the classes were held outdoors.  The kids played various outdoor games such as basketball, football, soccer, or hung out on the playground.  When I found a basketball that wasn’t being used, I commenced to dribbling it.  The kids might have thought it strange for a gray-haired 58-year-old lady dribbling a basketball.  In my humble opinion, they should view it as an encouraging sign.  When I see an 80-or 90-something-year-old taking a stroll in the park on their own two feet, it gives me some hope that I might still be doing such if I should live so long.

Actually, when I dribbled, I wasn’t only dribbling.  I was doing two things at once: dribbling for physical exercise and stimming for mental exercise.  I had the advantage of having a job-related task that masked my stimming.  Dribbling is as much a way to stim as rocking or pacing the floor since it is repetitive movement.  For someone living on the autism spectrum, stimming is a way of keeping me cool, calm, and collected while the kids do what they are so successful at — noise and mischief making.

I knew the coach missed his “regular” sidekick and the kids missed her too.  I never thought for a second I could replace her or for that matter, any aide I sub for.  I do hope he’ll miss me some as I will him, the other staff members, and the kids.  That assignment was a reminder to me that two people born decades apart can work together as if they weren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pup in the Hat

You’ve probably heard of Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”.  Well, here’s a tale of a pup in the hat.

The puppy doesn’t bark or bite.  It won’t hurt a fly.  It doesn’t have to be fed or cleaned up after.  Truth is, it’s a stuffed pup.  It arrives at school with his 4th-grade owner.  If the boy is at school, the puppy is at school.  The stuffed animal is showing some wear and tear from being toted around so much.

Along with carrying the puppy, the child wears a hat to school.  He might say he’d feel naked without it if he could carry on a conversation.  Maybe one day he will.

In the classroom, he tucks his pup inside his hat like a mother puts a baby in a cradle. He’ll place his pup in the hat inside his desk, occasionally checking on it like I constantly check to see if my keys are where I left them.

On days I have subbed in his class, I notice he doesn’t get much done because his mind escapes into his own world.  I know all about that because I’m an escape artist too.  He will do some classwork; then, go back to daydream land.  The work he does get done shows he is a smart boy.

He introduced me to his puppy.  I tried to introduce him to his math problems but he didn’t take the bait.  When he packed up for the day, he didn’t forget his companion.  He wouldn’t go home without it, but he did let the pup out of the hat.  He wasn’t about to leave school without his hat on.

Swing High

One thing in my childhood that set me apart from the other kids was the swing.  I did swing like my siblings and neighborhood kids.  But when I was on the swing, my mind was far from the swing set.  Far from the backyard or playground.  I was swinging in my make-believe world with a cast of characters under my direction.  I was both the director and the star of the story.  The more exciting the story, the higher I swung.  It’s a wonder I didn’t swing high enough to knock the swing set off the ground.

The “swing” memories came flooding back to me at the school playground where I was subbing for a Physical Education (P.E.) assistant for a couple of weeks.  This was a school I didn’t have as much a subbing history with as other schools.  I had only subbed in their gym and not in any of their classrooms.

As I was watching the 2nd graders on the playground, I saw a boy sitting on the swing who wasn’t swinging.  He noticed me watching him and asked me to push him.  I suspected he might be a special education student since most 2nd graders can push themselves.  I did my part and pushed him for what seemed like a good half hour; although it was probably half that.  He reminded me of myself at his age because he was an escape artist too.  If I understood what he was saying to himself, he was pretending to be on an airplane.  He was having such a good time that I kept on pushing even though my arm was aching for me to quit.

Another child came up and said it was his turn.  This gave me an excuse to give my arm a rest.  The boy knew the other child and gladly gave up his seat.  I suspected maybe they were in the same class and I was right.  The other boy needed a push too.  Oh, dear, I couldn’t refuse.  I’m particularly biased when it comes to special ed children.  And these two boys and I had something in common – the autism spectrum.  I realize this when the aide in the autism unit came up and assisted me with the two boys.

I don’t deny I wasn’t glad when the coach blew the whistle and I was relieved from swinging duty.  However, I wasn’t at all sorry about my arm getting a work-out.  They were doing what I did when I was on the swing at their age.  The only difference was I didn’t need someone to give me a push.  If I had, I would have hoped someone would have come along and given me a push.  That’s why I pushed at their request so they could both swing high.

Tablet Meltdown

It was a relaxing afternoon since Fridays are most welcomed by school students and staff alike, more so the staff I suspect.  I was subbing in a special ed class.  The youngest of seven students was a kindergartener who was quite a pickle, but cute as a button.

Like so many little and big kids, she takes a fancy to the tablet.  She knows how to use her fingers to switch from one view to the other and with one finger touch the icon that suits her fancy.  She knows what button to push to pull back up the home screen.  We didn’t hear a peep out of her until she let out a scream.  She was giving the tablet a talking to with a face that could kill.

The teacher and the regular aide did the right thing in admonishing her to use her voice and ask for help instead of throwing a tantrum.  It is a message she has to be told each time it happens.  I think that day it happened about a half dozen times.

I whispered to the teacher that there were many a time I wanted to do the exact same thing.  In my private moments, I have thought or spoken a few choice words to my tablet, desktop, laptop, or other devices.  I couldn’t tell the kinder I had done what she did since I didn’t want to discourage her from following the teacher’s instructions.

The teacher chuckled since she knew what I meant.  Most any of us have wanted to scream at a device that has gone haywire.  Such as tossing whatever out the window.  Most of us don’t because we’d have to pay for it and the window both.  Even worse, when it isn’t our device or our window.

The regular aide was asking me how I had been doing since my autism diagnosis.  I told her about my meltdowns and how I went about coping with them without damaging property.  She said, “At least, you know what they are and have coping skills.  These children don’t yet.”  She had a good point.  Those who occupy a different spot on the spectrum who can’t communicate what is going on suffer tremendously.  They don’t know what to do about it other than scream, kick, cry, etc.

There was one moment when she was playing on the carpet. We don’t know what went wrong but she started screaming again.  But this time, she was rocking back and forth on her knees.  Now that I relate to since I rock too when I want to scream.  And I admit there have been times I have screamed at my tablet.

 

 

 

 

Hit the Wall

I was subbing for a teacher’s aide in a special education class on my list of favorite hangout spots.  Some of the students I have known since I started subbing back in late 2014.  There are a couple of boys who are recent additions and have through no fault of their own have turned the class upside down.

I admire tremendously the teacher and her two sidekicks for coming to school day in and day out to maintain some sense of order in the midst of chaos.  The teacher is often holding one student in her lap while another aide is trying to catch the other one on the loose.  The remaining aide is trying to help the other students to ignore the commotion and concentrate on their classwork.  They didn’t have much luck in doing that the day I was there.

After I got home from the long school day, I needed to decompress.  Although I remained cool, calm, and collected through the class time, the tension was building up.  My home computer was not cooperating and my banging on the keyboard wasn’t just about my computer’s slowness.  I needed to get away by myself before I exploded on people and things around me.

I went on a tennis date with my racket and ball to the practice wall at a nearby college campus.  It felt good to be outside and walk the campus trail by myself.  I hit the wall with the tennis ball for about a half an hour.  After my tennis date, I was able to go back home feeling calm instead of a live wire.

The class is still high on my list of favorites.  The boys who require extra attention are special in their own right.  They have their sweet moments.  At the end of the school day, I walked one of the students to his daycare.  I have a connection with him since knowing him for the last two years.  He took me by the hand and we walked hand-in-hand until I dropped him off.  It was the bright spot in an otherwise day where I had to go hit a wall to help melt a meltdown.

 

 

 

Between Two Worlds

He is the youngest in his family and the oldest in his class of students who are all living somewhere on the spectrum.  This has been his class since first grade and it will soon come to an end.  Middle school is on his horizon.

You could call him an escape artist.  Without any prior notice, he breaks away from the classroom without leaving it.  He escapes into another world created by his imagination.  He has been known to get up in the middle of the classroom and do his imitation of a drummer.  He goes through the motions of drumming without a drum in hand.  I don’t know that he owns a drum set, but he must have at least an interest in the instrument.

I relate to him since I am a fellow escape artist.  The only difference between his and my escapism is I don’t do a demo for public consumption.  When I was his age, I most often escaped in the privacy of my bedroom or the side of the house.  I didn’t perform in front of my teacher or classmates.  When I invariably got caught in the act of stepping into another world by adults or other kids, it was embarrassing.  I knew then as well as now that escapism is just plain weird to the eye of the beholder.

Escapism is a necessity for me and this child.  It helps us cope in a world we don’t understand.  Living between two worlds is just what we do.

 

 

 

Just the Two of Us

A child told me I was on the autism spectrum.  A child who was on the spectrum herself; just not at the same spot.  A child told me without saying one word since it’s not possible yet for her to hold up her end of a conversation.  A child told me by just doing what she normally does — talking and pacing in a world of her own imagination.   I had been there, done that, and I still do.  That was the lightbulb moment that set me down the path of discovery.

Months after this discovery, there was a tender moment with just the two of us.  I was subbing for the teacher’s assistant and escorted her to gym class.  She goes to her favorite corner in the gym.  Since I was in idle mode, I retreated into my own imaginary world for a brief moment.  I felt a jolt as I came back to earth.  I looked over and she was in her imaginary world looking up at the ceiling and swirling her head from side to side.

As we both stood against the gym wall watching the 100-something students playing various games, I asked her with a chuckle, “What do you think about people who aren’t normal like us?”  I wasn’t expecting an answer but I was surprised when she leaned her head on my shoulder.  Then, she gave me a hug.  It was a golden moment between just the two of us.