I read that today is Autism Awareness Day.
As a teacher, I have had an Autistic Student in my class.
One was a boy who was diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, which is the “higher functioning” part of the Autism spectrum. He could do math, read at his grade level (3rd at the time) but he could not handle unstructured time and he lacked the ability to empathize. He literally could not see another person’s point of view.
Teaching him was a conscious struggle for me, as third grade testing requires that students look at a story from a different point of view. I couldn’t ever really say to him “how do you think Johnny/Susan feels?” because it just didn’t make sense to him.
However, the toughest part for me was when he began to hang out with the class bully. I tried to reach him and explain why this person might not be a good firend for him, how other student’s perceptions of him were changing. Unlike analyzing a novel, this was a real life situation, and it was going to affect his day to day life a lot more than being unable to understand a third grade reading comprehension question on a state test.
I ended up talking to his mom. Who just banned the bully from her home and then expected me to keep them apart at school. Which I could do in structured parts of the day, but not the more unstructured parts.
What makes teaching an autistic child who has been mainstreamed toughest, in my very limited experience, is how unprepared I felt to teach him. Unlike a student who was a kinethestic learner instead of a visual learner, or a child who needed things broken down into more steps, to go slower, to go faster, to use manipulatives….whatever….I just hadn’t been trained to know how to reach this child.
What I think I remember the most, when I think about being his teacher is the frustration and defeat I felt. He was a genuinely sweet kid…he was funny…I remember that he had a great smile and that his ears stuck out a bit. In so many ways he was just like all the other kids. But I constantly worried about whether he would continue to have friends if he couldn’t understand or empathize with the idea that if he was unkind, people wouldn’t want to be around him.
I still think about that child. He’d be in tenth grade now. I wonder if he’s still mainstreamed. I wonder if he’s learned any social cues.
And the thing is….he was high functioning.
I can only imagine what it must be like for parents of a lower functioning autistic child. One who might do harm to himself through repetitive behavoirs, like banging one’s head against a wall (a student in the substantially seperate Autistic Class in one of the schools I have taught at did this) as a calming measure.
I understand the desire to find a scapegoat to blame. I know if I could point a finger at something specific and say “THAT…that is what almost killed my child” I would feel less powerless than I do now when I think about her illness. Which is why I get it when I hear parents blame vaccinations.
However, when vaccinations have been cleared of all blame, I feel like it’s counterproductive to stay so monofocused. Research is needed, but lets stop pouring it into trying to prove the vaccine theory. Let’s research genetics…I’ve heard that there might be some causality on a fragile X chromosome, which explains why more boys are diagnosed than girls. I dont’ want to make this post about vaccines, but I would urge parents, whether to autistic children or not, to fight for more research into this puzzling disorder. What really causes it? Can it be prevented, or made better; is there a gene therapy?
In the meantime, my hat is off to you, parents of autistic children…keep fighting for your lovely sons and daughters. They deserve answers, and so do you.