Where Did She Go?

I once met a 5 year old autistic student going on 35. She reminded me of a truth about Autism: If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve only met one person.

This child made such an impression on me that I wrote about her previously. In that blog, I described this child as being one who had not met a stranger. When I would walk in, she would make a beeline towards me as if she saw me every school day.

The thing that was so unforgettable about her was her repetitive behavior of asking people their name over and over again. I was advised by her then teacher not to answer every single time she asked. I didn’t but my silence didn’t dissuade her from asking every half hour.

Whenever I took her to the gym or lunchroom, there wasn’t a teacher who passed by us that she didn’t go over and say hello and give a quick hug. I remember asking the teacher if the child knew every teacher on campus and she said with a smile and a wink, “She’s working on it.”

One of my most memorable moments as a substitute teacher’s aide was with this student. I still laugh recalling the time when 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.”  She sure got me that time!

Recently I saw her after not having seen her for a year or two. She was in first grade and the school year was close to being over. She is out of special education and in with the general crowd. Evidently it was determined she was ready to make the transition which is no small achievement. This transition is seen as a positive step.

On that day, I was subbing for the P.E. coach’s sidekick. It took a while for me to recognize her but that was because she is growing like any other child. Her having done some growing wasn’t the only thing that had changed.

In the 45 minutes I was with her, I didn’t see her going around asking for names or any question. She sat in her spot on the gym floor without complaint. On the playground, she played by herself on the monkey bars. I went up to her and said hello. All I got was a blank stare.

My blog is not intended to be my scathing criticism of the education system. Sometimes I write my observations that have either inspired me or on the other end, haunt me. This one haunted me and I am still haunted by seeing this child as she is today vs. what she used to be.

I wasn’t surprised she was transferred out of special education. She was book smart back in kindergarten and hopefully she’s just as much so in the first grade. She’s not jumping around in class and that’s a positive thing. She doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb in a gym class attended by the entire first grade. If her blending in with her peers was one of the goals, it appeared to me she reached it.

What haunted me was missing the girl I knew from a year ago. I admit I got tired of her asking my name, but it would have delighted me if she had asked me once that day. Or, at least said “hello” or something. I can only speculate as to why she wasn’t the inquisitive child she used to be. Maybe medication. Maybe having an off-day or maybe pre-occupied.

Or, maybe she learned to “pass” like I did when I was around her age so long ago.

I’ll end with a question that I have no answer yet: The extroverted little girl who hadn’t met a stranger, where did she go?

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I hope she isn’t one of those in limbo.


A Sense of Humor Goes a Long Way

I am a substitute teacher’s assistant which means I fill in when an assistant is absent for a whole host of reasons. I suspect one of those reasons might be to take a day off for tending to their stressed-out nerves. One of many advantages of being a part-time substitute is I can take a few days off between assignments to avoid nervous breakdown country.

This job has given me an appreciation for school staffs. I didn’t give my own teachers enough credit for putting up with me and my peers back in the 60 and 70s.

One of my assignments that I have added to my “war stories chest” was about a male student who was “all hands”.  This was his most used body part!  While trying to doing a one-on-one assignment with him, he kept putting his hands on my face, neck, and once attempted to go further south.  This wasn’t a surprise since I had been in his class a few months back.  That time he repeatedly touched me in my privates.  I wasn’t upset with him since he’s only 5-years-old.  If he were older, well, now that would be an entirely different story. HA! 

I escorted him to gym class with another student who was one of the two girls in the class.  The rest were all boys.  I didn’t have to watch the girl and it’s a good thing she didn’t need as much watching because the boy couldn’t be left alone.  He would chase after other kids to get his hands on one.  It didn’t help that some kids would come up to him knowing full well he would chase after them. 

One of my better assignments was an afternoon subbing for a kindergarten aide.  I seldom EVER do kinder, but I thought I could manage a half-day.  I was surprised when this assignment was a four star one.  The reason had everything to do with my “Billy” (autism).  Billy isn’t entirely a thorn in my side. 

On the bright side, I credit Billy with my attention to detail, my craze with organizing things, putting things in order alphabetically, numerically, or some other system.  Well, in this assignment, I went from each of the kinder classes and did whatever the teacher needed.  In all cases, it was to work on paperwork such as stuffing kids’ folders.  Such work is right up Billy’s alley!

Not that I had to, but I finished the folders with putting them in numerical order knowing that they wouldn’t be kept that way.  But as long as they were under my control, they would be in ORDER!  I was on cloud nine doing this kind of work that other folks find BORING!  It is when I have to do heavy-duty social interacting with the kids that will wear me out … especially KINDER with 20-something of ’em per class.

Growing Up on the Spectrum

She’s the only girl in her Autism Special Education class.  She’s in 4th grade as of this writing.  I’ve worked as a substitute teacher’s aide in classes she’s attended since she was in pre-school.  I’ve met all her teachers and without exception they have described her as being very smart.  I could see that myself from watching her do class assignments.  She was more often than not the student who knew the answer to the teacher’s question before anyone else. 
I thought some years back that she had the potential to be one of the ones who would transfer to general education classes.  Well, the transfer isn’t complete at this writing but she is spending some of her school day in general ed.  Her teacher is hopeful it will increase to full-time.  She is book-smart, but her behavior and social skills needs a bit more work.  
I empathize with this student as I do others in her class.  One doesn’t outgrow Autism.  I’m 60 and my social skills could still use some work.  Such as I enjoy being a substitute aide but such things as deciphering teacher’s verbal instructions is a constant challenge for me.  
It is a common Autism trait to be “brutally honest”.  This 4th grader  definitely has this trait.  Or, you could say that tact is not her thing. Maybe she will learn it as she gets older and maybe not.
For instance, on one occasion, the other aide and I were sitting at the table with her.   She told the aide whom I guessing is in her 40’s, “You are a little old.”  Then, she looked at me and said, “You are…”.  I interrupted her with wave of hand.  I knew what was coming and stopped her in mid-drift from saying “very” old.  That’s the one time I caught her.  In other words, most times I didn’t dodge her brutally honest bullet.
Kids, you gotta love ’em, whether they are growing on the Spectrum or not.

Growing Up on the Spectrum

It is an asset when you are on the Autism Spectrum to have a connection with a fellow traveler on the Spectrum. Whether in person, e-mail, texting, or social media, it can help to have someone in your life who is facing similar challenges. I’m fortunate to have several because of my job as a substitute teacher’s aide in elementary schools. One of the areas most needed for substitute’s are Autism classes. I have been subbing for five years and I literally have watched my fellow younger travelers grow up from as far back as pre-school to 6th grade.

I recently saw one of those students I’ve watched grow up for the last four years. He is at this writing in the fourth grade. In two more years, he’ll be starting a new chapter in his life journey: middle school. Since I don’t sub in middle school, I’ll not see him grow up past 5th grade.

He already faced going to a new school because he was moved from one school’s autism unit to another. At the time I saw him, I was subbing for a physical education aide in his new school. It was news to me that he had been transferred. It was a pleasant surprise! He had always been in his class at a higher level than the other students. Academically he was head of the class, but his social skills needed some work. I empathized with his difficulty in just asking the teacher or aide a question or asking for help. I had that problem at his age and I still have that problem still and I’m 60! I was astonished to see how much he had improved in interacting with both adults and the other students. He recognized me and with just a tad of urging from the aide, he said hello and my name which he remembered on his own.

He was more active in P.E. class than he was at his old school.  I observed him talking more to other students. I write this blog because it isn’t often I can write about a story first hand of a student with autism show tremendous improvement after having not seen them in a good while.  But when it happens, it makes all the effort to help those growing up on Spectrum worthwhile.

He is special to me because he reminds me of ME!  Such as in the dining department. I relate to him still eating the same lunch that he ate four years ago.  The aide asked me, “Did he eat just toast and bacon the side back at his old school?” I nodded and laughed! Yes, that him all right! He eats it the same way in the same sequence (first the bacon, then the toast).  When he was asked by the aide what he had for Christmas, it was the same old thing, toast and bacon.  I have the same meals, same time, with little change every day.  My main entree for dinner will be different, but everything else is the same and I eat it all in the same order.  I even cut things, like pizza, a certain way.  Otherwise, I won’t eat it. 

His favorite on the playground is a swing and that was mine too.  He is obsessed with a soap opera “Bold and the Beautiful.  I was a soap opera addict at his age too. I had more soaps to watch since such there was more “soap” to watch back in the 60s and 70s. 

Also, the teacher’s aide says he is so smart and well, we have that in common too.  HA!

Looking Out The Window

If I could take a single snapshot of myself as a child, it would be of me as a little girl looking out the window watching the children play.  A child wishing to join in, but too afraid to step outside and ask “can I play?” Maybe if she had asked, they would have let her join in the circle.  But repeatedly being a victim of bullying, she didn’t dare risk rejection. She maintained her distance on the sidelines where she felt safe.

She compensated the loneliness with retreating into a world of make-believe where she could be anybody she wanted to be.  She made up a cast of characters who let her join their circle. In this world, she got to take part and play the starring role. The little girl knew it was a world of her own imagination.  And when she invariably got caught acting strange, pacing back and forth, talking to herself, she’d bear the brunt of the heckling.  No matter the fingerpointing, she’d retreat to that imaginary world where she was somebody.

I am on the autism spectrum and was only self-diagnosed two years ago at the age of 58. My diagnosis was a gift I shall treasure for the rest of my days.  I know now what’s behind how I think, feel, and act. Before the diagnosis, it was like walking in pitch black darkness. The diagnosis was the light bulb.   

It was largely through working as a substitute teaching assistant that I came to the realization of being autistic.  Sometimes I would cross paths with a child who reminded me of the little girl looking out the window.

One of those times occurred in an elementary school gym while subbing for a P.E. aide.  I was watching the children play in stations, each section being a different game. I noticed a third-grade boy who was  standing next to me. I asked him why wasn’t he at one of the stations and he shrugged his shoulders. I asked him, “How about basketball or tether ball, or jump rope, or hula-hoop?”  He nodded “no” at all my suggestions. I asked him what he liked to do. He said, “EAT!” I could not keep a straight face.

This youngster was tugging at my heart strings.  I knew what it was to just watch the other kids play.  Instead of pushing him to shoot baskets or jump rope, I asked him if he’d like to take a walk with me.  He agreed to that.
As we went for our walk around the other kids playing, I asked him questions such as what he was wishing for Christmas. He said, “Food!” This boy had more “food” on his brain than inside his tummy. I asked him what his favorite food was and he said “hamburger” and what hamburger place he liked best and he said “Mom’s”. I assumed he meant Mom’s homemade hamburgers were better than at any restaurant.

He pulled out his Mom’s business card with a beaming smile on his face. He was so PROUD of his Mom and it seemed to be of such comfort to him to have the card with her phone number in case he needed to call her. He let me see the card and it was a hamburger restaurant. That explained why his Mom’s hamburgers were the best and his favorite food.   

He told me he had one sibling, an 18 year old sister, who works with Mom at the restaurant. Since there’s a big difference in ages, perhaps he’s not used to playing with kids his own age. He feels more comfortable with adults than other kids and I was that way when I was his age. Now I prefer hanging out with children more than I do adults.

I believe the Lord has blessed me with both my diagnosis and a job that helps me cope with that diagnosis.  It was no burden at all to let that child know that he wasn’t invisible to me. I gave him a little bit of time and attention that I wished someone had given me when I was that little girl looking out the window. The past can’t be changed or relived. But my job gives me numerous opportunities to help young ones who struggle with what I struggled with and still do.

In an autistic unit, the other day, I hugged a child who was having a bad day.  I whispered to myself, “I know. I’m on the spectrum too.”

Does Someone with Asperger’s Relate to Children?

I was among a few who answered this question posed by someone in a question/answer website.

I came across in my research on Asperger’s Syndrome a chart that listed female Asperger’s Syndrome Traits”. One of the items on the list was “is youthful for her age in looks, dress, behavior, and tastes.” I can claim that trait hands down! It explains why I have a herd of electric toys. My toy store is the neighborhood electronics store and my on-line retailer Amazon. I am in the process of trying to keep my balance on a pair of Razor wheel heels. It is like roller skates but just two wheels on my heels. That wouldn’t be strange for a 10-year-old but I’m 50 years older than a 10-year-old. I confess I even sometimes wear them to the store since I don’t want to bother taking them off.

When I left Washington D.C. where I worked for the government and went to work subbing as an aide for my hometown school district, I wondered how I’d get along with the kids. It has turned out I am better at it than I would have thought. As I grow older physically, I am growing younger on the Spectrum.

When family comes over for Sunday dinner at my Mom’s house, I show up because I live with my Mom. While they eat, I am in my bedroom interacting with my computer. My grandnephew leaves the table first and heads straight to my room. He likes my toys too! His sister isn’t far behind him. My grand niece and nephew, my playmates, can back me up on my acting young for my age. I have a special bond with them that I believe I wouldn’t have if I were neurotypical. There are advantages of having Asperger’s!

On my job, I recall escorting an autistic student to gym class. I was glad when a couple of other kids wanted to play with him. One of them got a basketball knowing it was a favorite of my student’s. It was mine too! The other kids let me play too. At the end of class, one of the kids came up to me and said, “You are a lot of fun!” I told her thanks and waved a big smile. That little girl just gave a high-five to a 60-year-old going on 10.

All in a Sub Day’s Work

I have the pleasure of being a substitute teacher’s aide in the school district where I was taught to read, write, add, subtract, and other such things.  I was writing this at the end of another school year.  It was hard to tell just who was more ready for the bell to ring for the last time of the school year – the grown-ups or the pint-sized ones.
Play Day is held by the schools around Memorial Day holiday.  It is usually an all-day event unless there’s interference such as rainfall or three-digit temperatures.
Several schools had their Play Day on the Friday after Memorial Day.  One of the schools did not have their best Play Day compared to years past.  The bounce houses were a no-show.  That’s like all the roller coasters at a park like Six Flags or Disney being out of order.  The company couldn’t deliver them on time since they overbooked and didn’t have enough workers to carry out all their obligations that day.  Just an example of the supply not equaling the demand.
I was at another Play Day that Friday.  I was subbing in a special ed class for a teacher who I consider one of my dearest friends.  She had a story to tell on one of her students who has a “stubborn streak”.  You won’t find this term in a medical dictionary, but I’ve heard teachers use that term.  Now stubbornness is a trait that anyone on the planet can have.  It’s just this youngster has maximum strength stubbornness.  Maybe it is worse of late because he’s approaching the pre-teen age.
The teacher escorted her student to the water slide.  He made it to the top and what did he do?  He just sat at the top and wouldn’t budge so much as an inch!  His teacher shouted and pleaded for him to slide down.  NOPE!  She told the other kids to go around him and slide down.  Before she lost her voice, she told the high school boys who were helping out to grab his legs and pull him down.  This took more than one boy since the student is a growing boy big-sized for his age.
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In the back of her mind, she was hoping there wasn’t a parent videotaping this on their cellphone commanding teenagers to pull a kid down by his legs.  Finally, he came sliding face down all the way.  He looks up with a smile on his face, spitting water right in his teacher’s face.
I did not witness this myself.  The teacher told me and one of her two aides about it later.  She was laughing as she told it.  I doubt it was funny at the time it happened though, especially the spit part.
The following week, the last week of school for me, I was subbing for a P.E. aide.  When one of the older classes was lined up to leave the gym and head back to their classroom, a boy raised his hand and I went over to see what in tarnation he wanted.  I had him repeat it four times since I couldn’t understand what in tarnation he was asking me.  (One of my autism traits is verbal communication.  It isn’t so much hearing that I ask someone to repeat something, but more about giving me time to process what I am hearing).  He finally spelled the word “r-i-g-h-t” before I realized he was asking me, “You are a girl, RIGHT?”  I found out he and a female classmate had been debating about whether I was a boy or girl.  I told the girl, making direct eye contact which I don’t often do, that she guessed wrong.
I have been asked this before and it won’t be the last time.  I assume my short haircut is responsible for this question.  I like my hair short so I can spend less time with the hairbrush that I am sensitive to.  This does make me wonder what else the students say about me in their chit-chats.  Some things I am better off being in the dark about and this is definitely one of them.

A First Grader with Big Dreams

I am a substitute teacher’s assistant for my hometown school district.  One of the positives of my position is having a variety of assignments.  My favorites are special education and physical education (P.E.).  Depending on where I am and what kind of day the kids are having, it can be an uneventful day or it can be a six-ring circus.
Not too long ago I subbed for a P.E. aide for just one afternoon.  I honestly had FUN!  I didn’t mind the noise so much in the gym because I had something that occupied both my mind and body.  I got to play one of my favorite all-time games, tetherball.  My first competition was with a 4th-grade sweet young lady.  We didn’t keep score which was fine by me.  She was a novice and I was out of tether practice.  I did engage a 6th grader boy near the end of P.E.  I kept hoping the coach would blow the whistle for the kids to line up but wouldn’t you know it?  She blew just seconds after I threw in the towel.  He was a gentleman since he shook my hand afterward and said, “good game”.  That’s not behavior I’ve often seen from sixth graders.

In the midst of numerous activities going on in the gym, a handsome 1st grader was showing off his dancing skills to the P.E. coach.  I joined them and continued watching after the coach left since the music hadn’t stopped and neither had the blond headed cute-as-he-could-be 1st grader.  I felt compelled to keep cheering him on until the music stopped.  At the end of class, the boy came up to me and told me that when he dances, his brain is going like crazy.  He was so enthusiastic about dancing with his eyes as big as saucers when talking about it.  I told him he was a such a good dancer that I could see him one day making an appearance on “Dancing With The Stars”. 

At the end of the school day, I was packing up in the coach’s office and this youngster came up to the door.  He softly says, “It was nice meeting you.”  Oh, my heart did flip-flops.  I leaned down and shook his hand.  He gave me a high-five.  I told him again, “You’re a good dancer.  Don’t stop practicing!”  He nodded with a Texas-sized smile, promised he wouldn’t, and walked away. 
Such moments in a school day don’t happen often, but when they do, my job is worth more than words can say.

The Uniqueness of Autism

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.

A Smile Will Do

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.