In the classroom, the child was terrified. Looking around there were only waists, skirts, pants, muffly voices of adults in a line that felt all too crowded. Holding tightly to the mother’s hand, the child’s heart was beating fast. Beating with fear of the unknown. The crowd thinned. Registration was over and all the children had to take their seats. The grown -ups were leaving.
The child was scared, quiet. Did not want to talk. At the same time, the child was fascinated with aspects of the classroom. Eventually, there were reading groups. The child’s nose was highly sensitive. Smells were strong and evoked strong reactions. The books had a delightful musty, intoxicating smell. The pages were worn but colorful. The words came easily for the child. The child knew how to read before ever being taught a word. The pictures helped the words flow. The two just went together. The children in the books were all so happy and playful. Sometimes, the child just wanted to step inside the soft, worn pages and become one with the people inside the books.
There was play time. The child was fascinated by a puppet station to which the children could rotate in groups and play. There was a stage and puppets. How awesome to talk through a puppet while hidden from view behind the little stage! More than that, touching the puppets in their colorful costumes and the velvet curtains around the stage upon which the puppets performed was beyond exciting! The velvet curtains were so soft and purply-red. They were magnificent with soft gold cords.
There was chalk and chalkboards. If you were really good, you could earn the right to go with the teacher to the basement (scary as it was, with no windows and closed doors, bare lightbulbs above a concrete, hollow and echoey passageway, casting shadows) and use the eraser cleaner to remove the chalkdust from the extra large rectangular, soft, white eraser. The coveted chalkboard eraser that otherwise only the teacher could touch or use.
There was story time where all the children sat around in a semi-circle. The teacher would read a chapter from some exciting book each day. With each page she read, she’d turn the book around and slowly let everyone see the picture from the words on the page. The child was fully absorbed in these stories and not really cognizant of the stomach ache that meant the need to be excused to the restroom.
The teacher had to take the child to the office one time. The child had an accident. Mom had to come take the child home. The child was made to feel ashamed and bad for not raising a hand and asking to use the restroom. But the child was afraid of the restroom and did not want to go alone. The child never used the school restroom.
Holding it in so often led to much stomach pain for this child. Eventually, during the school year, the doctor felt the unexplained stomach pain warranted a trip to the hospital. The child was required to stay overnight in the children’s ward of the hospital, while tests were run. The child was afraid. Again, not speaking much or protesting because the child lacked understanding of what would happen there. The child, who was never separated from the parents, was left alone in the children’s ward overnight, crying to get to sleep. There was a discharge in the morning with a new toy from the parents who did not like being separated from the child either.
Despite the love, the child was belittled by the mother, after the release from the hospital. The mother made fun of the child’s stomach ache, as though the child exaggerated it way out of proportion. The mother scolded the child for scaring the poor mom. Since the child was so “loved”, the child felt more shame because clearly, having the stomach aches was bad, and the child had disappointed the parents.
There were times when the voices from the television became garbled for the child. The words came too fast. The child just wanted the TV off. The voices were rapid and harsh, like someone was talking a million miles per hour. Overwhelmed, the child would go into a tail spin. Holding ears and running to bed to cover a head with a pillow, the child would wait it out, sometimes in tears, sometimes just holding it all together. Sometimes, the child would run for comfort to the nearest parent’s arms. Eventually, the voices would return to normal.
When either parent asked what was the matter, the child could not articulate this strange course of events. The child would say, “Everything was going too fast. The voices were too fast.” The parents did not understand. The child was placated, patted gently and told, “You just need a nap.” “Take a nap and you’ll feel better.” The child could not fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon.
The one game that the child recalls at this age was hand writing out math and spelling sheets and passing them around to neighborhood children younger to “play school”. The other mothers would often ask the child to “play” this game, although it seemed the other children did not like to play. Often, the child played alone.
Eventually, a report card came home with excellent progress for that child but in a note, the teacher wrote she was concerned that the child did not have but one or two “friends” and really needed to socialize more. The mother, highly agitated by the teacher’s words, said the teacher was wrong. The mother quizzed the child to reassure the mom that the child had sufficient playmates. The child always agreed with the mom. After all, it was the mom. And for years after, the mom would demand the child find more friends, go outside and play with strangers, and knock on doors to play. The child did not.
Do you think that child was on the spectrum?
That child was me. That was first grade. I was six years old. Tootles will be six in a few weeks. I hope he will always have different memories. And I hope he always knows who he is.
I have never hidden his autism diagnosis from him. I know for every parent it is different. Some parents do not share and I’m not writing to change anyone’s mind.
I’m only saying that in our world, autism is full of open windows. I don’t ever want a dark curtain over my son’s world. I’ve only recently begun to remove the curtain over mine.
Thank you to Sam for helping me find the cord.