My memory recalls this day at Elementary school as a sunny day. It was early spring and we were picking dandelions at recess. A bunch of us girls were pretending we were at a wedding and each one of us was a flower girl. Along came a boy who I will call Bobby. He walked funny, talked funny, and pretty much was the social outcast. I don’t remember that he had a friend in the world. We as girls were afraid of him. He was unpredictable. This day was the day we decided to conquer our fear I guess. Bobby approached us making kissing noises and said “What do we have here- lovely little girls.” He came closer making kissing noises and we screamed. Then one threw dandelions at him. Others joined in. He fell to the ground. One even smooshed the yellow from the dandelion on his face. He was helpless. It was a memory that haunts me because it was one of the times (and there were others too I, being a sinner, ) where I was in on treating someone with cruelty. After some time of this, his dad, who lived in the school’s backyard, came up and shouted at us. “Stop that you girls”. He picked Bobby up from the ground. Bobby hugged his dad and they walked away. The girls and I stood in silence. I don’t know what others were thinking. But I knew that he just wanted friends like the rest of us.
Bobby had struggles making friends. He was the first quirky boy that no one knew what do to with. The teachers sometimes took his quirkiness for misbehavior. He had no social graces that we all just happened to know. He was a puzzle to many.
Fast forward and I am teaching a first grade class. There is a girl in my class similar to Bobby from way back. She is also very dramatic, energetic, and crushed when something wasn’t like it routinely should be. I will call her Rose. Rose was new to our school. She loved learning and was essentially very smart. Her mother was kind and nurturing. Her dad was stern and cold on the outside but underneath the prickles he was very loving and nurturing as well. No one really labeled or diagnosed her – at least I was not aware. I remember feeling impatient with her and even struggling to “like” her at times. My inexperience was not helping her situation. I did make her Goldilocks in our class play and she enjoyed it. I did read books with her one on one. I did reward her for accomplishments. But that seems like small potatoes now.
I have a teacher friend who was close enough to me to sing at my wedding and be with me in the ER to see the heart beat and first ultrasound of my first child because my husband was away. She has a son with autism. For years, when we taught together, she told me stories of struggle and trial and joy and success and starting all over with that again as her son grew up. I listened and did my best to encourage.
Autism was something I knew about only really through my friend. Little did everyone else know about it. Except the experts who were mostly in my mind, parents of those with autism. But more and more of the unusual type were becoming common. Now I hear a statistic that one in 88 have autism.
Now, it all comes together. All those children who were not in the square that I knew of in childhood and as my own students, likely had autism. I was on the outside of that world looking in and wondering. Now, I am on the inside. where my own child has autism. My first child, a girl, and born when I was two years shy of 40. I have a child who could one day be the dandelion victim – but won’t be if I can help. I have the child who would gladly star in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I have a child who has sensory issues, meltdowns, social quirks, and language work to do. My child is not typical.
Bobby, now I understand that you were still learning to interact socially with others in appropriate ways. You needed support and help not isolation and ridicule. Rose, now I understand that you needed the security of the same thing all the time even if it meant me feeling like a Robot. Friend, now I understand your tears when your son was struggling or hit a wall and your rejoicing at the victories he made. Now I understand, more of what I need to do to help my daughter, whom I have high hopes for despite this thing called autism which I am just beginning to now understand.