She’s on the Spectrum but she doesn’t know that yet. She’s 5 years old going on 35. This kindergartner reminds me that if you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person.
Most students in the autism unit are on the shy side. As one with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am not a chatterbox either. But this child has not met a stranger. It doesn’t matter how long has it been since I’ve subbed in her class. When I walk in, she makes a beeline towards me as if she sees me every school day.
One of her repetitive behaviors is asking people their name over and over again. The teacher warned me about this the first time I had laid eyes on her. The teacher and classroom aide advised me not to answer every single time she asks. I didn’t but my silence didn’t dissuade her from asking every half hour.
When I escorted her to and from gym class, we passed by several teachers. There wasn’t a single teacher she didn’t say hello and give a hug. She knew all the teacher’s names. I’m good at remembering faces, but names? Forget it! I asked the teacher when we returned from the gym if the child knew every teacher on campus by name and she said with a smile and a wink, “She’s working on it.”
The last time I was with her class, she repeatedly asked not only my name but my mother’s name, my brother’s name, etc. Finally, I turned the tables on her and asked her what was her name. Her answer: “NOYB”. I said what??? She said, “none of your business.” Okay, she is a smart aleck too, but an adorably cute one.
On my job as a substitute teacher’s assistant, I have the privilege of working with children who inspire me. Such as inspiring me to do less complaining and more thanking.
I celebrated my 59th birthday last October. I haven’t been a hospital patient since my grandmother carried me out of the hospital into the world. Hospitals are full of children who are not so fortunate. I have crossed paths with school children who know a hospital bed as well as their own bed at home. A sweet boy who survived a transplant at five will say whenever he gets so much as a sniffle, “I’ll probably have to go to the hospital for this.” Sometimes he does.
On a P.E. assignment in the gym, I saw one of the aides with one of his wheelchair-bound students. I teased the aide in saying, “There’s my favorite fella”, while rubbing the little boy’s head. The aide said, “Hey, what about me?” I assured the aide he was a favorite but the young fella was a special one.
The aide released the youngster from his wheelchair so the youngster could crawl around. He can’t stand on his own two feet without a pair of hands holding him up. He can’t say a word but he does make his own unique noises now and then. I met him a few years ago and he walked into my heart. I always look forward to visiting his class because his smile will give my heart a lift.
He has many limitations that prevent him from being in the mainstream. The Good Lord only knows if he’ll ever say his first word or write one. The odds of him not needing the wheelchair are not good. I have often wondered why it is that I was blessed with good health and someone like my little friend can’t use his legs to walk, run, and play. I do believe with all my heart that when its time for him to leave this earth, he will go to a place where he will have no need of a wheelchair and have full use of his legs.
He has won the hearts of his classmates who all have their own challenges too. Challenges that keep them in special ed classroom for however long they need. If he drops a toy, one of them is glad to pick it up. He’s not a burden, he’s one of them.
Outside the classroom, it is different. He is sometimes met with stares. The wheelchair seems to blind their view of the boy who resides in it. If a student gets out of line with staring or laughing, he or she is in big trouble if the boy’s teacher or one of the aides are within sight or earshot.
I don’t know what my favorite fella knows about his being different. He isn’t able to talk about what is on his mind. He has to depend on others to care for him and speak for him. He seems as far as I can tell to be content in the classroom playing with toys that make noise which he puts up to his ear.
I don’t think he would want my sympathy. If he could, I think he would say that a smile would do. One shouldn’t underestimate a smile. My favorite fella’s smile inspires me to do the same.
I’m fortunate to have a job where I work with teachers who teach children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and with the students themselves. I have a teacher’s empathetic ear to my own ups and downs of living on the Spectrum. The students with ASD are my fellow Spectrum travelers. Helping students whether they are in general or special education is therapeutic. The icing on the cake is I earn a paycheck and receive therapy at the same time.
It is always a treat to have an assignment at the school where I initially suspected I had ASD. The specific behavior of one of the students was the light bulb that led me to my diagnosis near the end of 2016. Seeing her reminds me of the impact she unknowingly had on me. She can’t hold a conversation but she does know me by sight. To say she is special is an understatement.
One of my assignments at this school took me from classroom to classroom working with special ed students who attend general ed classrooms. I spent a little time with a 4th grader who needed assistance with getting around. She can’t use stairs and so one of my chores was to escort her up and down the elevator. She is so determined to be independent! I think she could have operated the elevator with her eyes closed since she has to use it so much.
One of the staff has the job of taking special ed students out of their classroom and holding one-on-one or small group sessions. We had a couple of conversations about ASD since her son was diagnosed at a young age of having ASD. I told her of my own ASD behaviors/obsessions and I didn’t tell her anything that surprised her. My behavior and that of her son was more alike than different. She cited examples of her son’s traits/obsessions and it sounded all so familiar. I was uplifted by this conversation. I could talk to this lady for hours but when it was time to sign out and go home, I did since I had to stick to my routine. The teacher did say something that I took with me and inscribed in my heart:
“I have the perspective of a parent with a child who has Asperger’s. I have the perspective of a sibling who grew up with a brother who has severe Autism. I teach children who are on the Spectrum. But you have a bigger perspective. It is your life!”
I understood what the teacher said about it being my life. It affects every aspect of it. If I could somehow even for a short time separate myself from my ASD, I don’t know who I’d be but it sure wouldn’t be me.
When I began subbing as a teacher’s aide in my hometown school district, I thought that the last school I’d want to take an assignment at would be the elementary school I started attending when Lyndon Johnson was President. I have a heap of memories and not all of them are good ones. I tend to reflect more on the bad than the good. I didn’t know I had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when I was attending elementary school since I didn’t have an ASD diagnosis until after I turned 58. Since being formally introducted to my constant companion, I now reflect on those elementary school years with a different pair of lens.
After a couple of years of subbing, I did get up the nerve to take an assignment at my Alma Mater. The main part of the building and the cafeteria are still there. Of course, memories flooded back as I walked the hallways. I wondered if the classroom I was working in was one that I had spent one of my school years. My report cards had many “A”s and a few “B”s. If there was ever a “C”, I don’t recall it. I recall being the teacher’s pet in 5th grade and being such only made it a lonelier school year for me. I don’t recall any friends because I don’t recall having any.
I recently subbed for the school’s P.E. aide. It was a good day. The highlight of my visit to my alma mater was an encounter with a 6th-grade boy. The game of the day for his class was tag football. He wanted so much to play with his classmates but a brace on each leg was too much of an obstacle. He was given a football to play with by a kind classmate. He fell while trying to kick it and I walked over to help. I asked him if he wanted to play with me and he took me up on it. We played catch and then switch to kicking the ball back and forth. His braces didn’t get in the way of throwing a pass I could catch or kick a ball an honorable distance. He told me when he got tired. I could have played more but I didn’t tell him that. I hope he had as good a time playing with me as I did him.
The staff at my alma mater are so kind. So many of them are not shy about saying “hello” or “thanks for coming”. I ran into the Principal who thanked me for coming at the end of the school day. I told her that her school was my alma mater. She lit up and said, “Then, it must feel like coming home.” I nodded and told her that it is hard to believe that Lyndon Johnson was President when I started elementary school. I kind of wish I hadn’t said that. In other words, I walked right into that one. She said in a nice way, “Oh, that was a LONG time ago.” I said with a sigh, “Well, you didn’t have to put it quite that way.” This time my humor wasn’t way off. The principal of my alma mater wasn’t rolling on the floor but she wasn’t far from doing so.
I am a baby boomer. I can tell if I’m talking to a fellow baby boomer if I ask such questions as: “Does Gomer Pyle ring a bell with you?” and it rings a bell with them. I don’t mean the reruns on TV land, but the original TV series. The thing I remember most about Gomer was his exclamation: “SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE!” It drove his commanding officer, Sergeant Carter, up the wall.
Life does have its surprises all right. Some good, and some not so much. One of my autism traits is my need for routine and so I don’t necessarily welcome surprises. Even good surprises can give me some anxiety until the surprise wears off.
One of those things I am surprised to be doing is working in the same school district I grew up in. I am a substitute teacher’s aide where I work in elementary schools. I’m often flooded with my own school memories as I go about my job from one school to another.
I recall the subject I dreaded most was a favorite of many of my peers – Physical Education (P.E.). With a weight problem and awkwardness, P.E. was a humbling experience. I scored high in the classroom but fell behind on the playground and ball field. Sometimes on my rump!
If someone had told me back when I was attending an elementary school that when I got to be 58, I would return to that same school to fill in as the P.E. coach’s sidekick, I would have told the person they had a wilder imagination than I did. That’s saying a lot because my imagination was and still is off the charts. It sure threw me a curveball to not only be working in a gym class but above all, to like it! I have become an avid walker, tennis player, and I even shoot baskets! Instead of at the age of 8, but at 58.
I did return to my old school recently to fill in for the P.E. aide while she was out for a day. I was escorting the 5th-grade girls out to the court to play volleyball. One of the girls came up to me and asked, “How old are you?” Now I’m on my 4th school year and if I had a quarter of every time I’ve been asked that, I could buy lunch at McDonald’s. Now I could have taken a serious tone and advised her not to ask older women their ages. Or, I could have given a cute answer such as “39 and holding”. She probably wouldn’t have believed the holding bit anyway. I could have pled ignorance or pled the 5th. But this was the last class of the day and I was tired. I just told her the truth.
She said, “My Mom is thirty-three.” I thought, “So what?”, but minding my manners, I only thought it. Sometimes I say too much and this was one of those times. I told the youngster I went to this school back when I was her age. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Really!” I nodded and said, “Yelp. No kidding.” I surprised her but she had a bigger surprise for me with her comeback answer: “My goodness, this school must be REALLY old.” She was quite empathic about the “really old” part as if she was referring way back to the “horse and buggy” days. My heart dropped knowing I walked right into that one.
The girls were learning to play volleyball. One of the few things I could do in P.E. that I had some success at was serving the ball in volleyball. I was far more confident on a volleyball court than let’s say a baseball diamond where I was terrified with fear that when the bat met ball, the ball would make a beeline towards me. Seeing that the girls were novices, I took the ball and served it. After a successful demonstration of what a volleyball serve looked like, I heard some “WOW”s from the girls. I surprised them all right! I sort of surprised myself since I couldn’t remember the last time I served a volleyball.
Although I am shy of surprises, I am thankful for them too. If the Lord gave us the blueprint of our entire life on this earth at the start of it, we’d be strangers to hope. If our lives were neatly planned and organized, no surprises, there’d be no reason for faith. I’d rather be thrown a curveball every now and then than live without any hope of something good happening around the corner.
I was asked by a young girl if she was bad for not wanting to be friends with a boy who had Autism. His quirky behavior was as she put it, “driving her bonkers”. He’d get in her face, follow her around, and spin in circles on the floor.
I was coming at this question from two perspectives. One is I am on the spectrum myself and empathize with the boy. On the other hand, I was a substitute teacher’s assistant and although I love the students, some do test my patience and so I could empathize with where she was coming from.
I answered with first stating I didn’t think she was a bad person. Just the fact that she was asking the question suggests to me she’s nicer than she thinks. I advised her not to abandon him completely. She didn’t have to be his best buddy but I advised her not to ignore him completely. I know all too well what it is to be ignored and it hurts like heck.
I gave her a few examples of those, (how shall I put this nicely), put my patience to task.
One was a boy on the Spectrum who does not give his voice a break. I often wonder what keeps him from getting laryngitis. My best coping mechanism is a sense of humor about it. I don’t mean laughing at him; just keeping my sense of humor to ease the chatter on my nerves.
Another example was an autistic boy whose behavior for whatever reason changed for the worse when he changed schools. He had been such a gentle soul but the change in schools took a toll on him. He was physically disruptive and the other kids were a bit frightened of him. I did my best to remain calm around him. I knew he couldn’t help it. He even knew that. His teacher told me that one day he had given her a hard time. He came over, gave her a hug, and said, “I don’t know why I do it.”
Then, I told her about the gentle giant who loves to give hugs and kisses. She has the autism trait of being repetitive in saying or asking things over and over again. That can get annoying! But I try to be patient because I know her story. You see she’s the new kid on the block in her class as well as neighborhood. Her world was rocked when her Mom died in another state and she now lives with Grandma. She talks about her Mom being in Heaven as if her Mom just moved away to some far-away location. She freely talks about joining her someday as if death is an everyday topic. Her teacher gently tries to change the subject, but rest assured, the gentle giant will bring it up again.
Last example, but not least, is a 7 years old who is the youngest in his autism unit. He’s also the only one who has yet to utter his first word. He does understand some of what he hears for he will do what he is told for maybe 2 minutes at most. He’ll flap with one arm, stop, hit his teeth with one hand, stop, give the top of his head two slaps, and start over again. The teacher will tell him to put his arms down and that works for maybe 10 seconds. He was climbing over me and I gave him a hug. While trying to put him back in his chair, what did he have in his hand? My billfold! I got pickpocketed! I showed his teacher and she wasn’t the least bit surprised. I wasn’t his first victim and I surely won’t be the last.
The girl with the question was amused at my stories and I told her that I laugh at my own quirky behavior all the time. It beats crying about it. I think I gave her some food for thought. I hope she decided not to abandon the boy. After all, Autism can be a lonely road.
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 faraway 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.