I had never met the woman who was going to give the presentation to the class. I saw the Power Point slides and the text that was intended to go with each slide about a month ago. I had redlined it. “No, don’t say that! This is not my son. Insert this,” I thought, as I marked through each page.
I did not know if any of the changes were made. It was out of my control.
And so I sat on pins and needles at the back of the classroom. The desks had been pushed closely together toward the middle of the room. The perimeter was opened up. The children from the other first grade class, next door, had carried their chairs into my son’s class. In groups of 2, 3 and 4 they sat on the ends of each row. The Vice Principal of the school had popped in to observe. Both first grade teachers were present.
I looked at my son. He was in his white t-shirt, his trademark look in play, the tilt of the head, eyes off to one side, smiling. He was softly talking about the class turtle, a favorite subject of his. I was overwhelmed.
All of this was to increase understanding amongst his classmates, and potentially, his classmates for next year. This was all organized for my son by his teacher and his ABA providers. But from the talk in the office, the school officials were all well aware of what was happening today in the first grade. The class was learning about autism.
It was time to explain why my son was different and how those differences are not for teasing, or isolating or ignoring. Everything was done in a way to encourage friendship, to teach the children how to be a good friend to someone with autism. To play with someone with autism and to accept that he might not respond the way other kids do was a theme. There was emphasis that even though my son might not be able to express it, he will be happy and glad for the friendships that come.
The presenter was an assistant director from the company that provides my son his one-on-one ABA classroom aides. She was lively and kind. Positive and approachable. She talked about special things my son could do and one of the kids raised a hand and mentioned how they knew my son could spell because he was second in the spelling bee!
She took questions after the presentation was over. The questions were not so much questions as statements about the kids themselves. Some of them told stories about how some noises upset them, how they were anxious and scared in new situations too, like the first time a couple of them slept in bunk beds away from home or heard a fire drill bell.
One boy asked if there was a cure for autism. The answer by the presenter was that it was no different that being born with blue eyes. She carefully skirted the word “cure” altogether.
My son’s teacher asked the children to raise their hands to thank the presenter and when they did, to tell the class one thing the child learned from the presentation. Most said they learned how children with autism can be extra sensitive to sound. Others said they learned that children with autism might not talk like the rest of the class.
I was touched by all this effort for my son. I told him before it began, what was going to happen. I don’t know whether he knew or understood that this effort was for him. He has not spoken about it at all. He seemed to pay the same attention to the program that I normally see him pay attention to anything else in that classroom. Some of the time, he appeared to be listening. Most of the time, he appeared to be elsewhere. He did have a couple quiet but clear verbal outbursts of echolalia, related to his class turtle during the program.
My son’s teacher asked at the end of the program what the children could do to be a good friend to my son. She encouraged them to play with anyone on the playground who was alone. A few of the kids said they would play with my son. I have no idea how much of that was true, or they felt it was expected on their part. He never looked at anyone who spoke about him but he was always smiling.
For my part, the day before the program occurred, I offered an idea. I told my son’s teacher that if she had each of the children draw a picture after the program, I would add the text, “I have a friend with autism” to the pictures and turn them all into buttons the kids could wear. They would wear their own artwork and support a friendship with my son. She agreed.
I did not know what I was getting myself into at first. My intent was to take the photos of the artwork and turn them into buttons. I ended up at Michael’s, an arts and crafts store, which sells buttons. You insert your own photos. The buttons were $4.99 a dozen. I made up wallet sized photos of the art and inserted them. I’ve got a few more to do-over since the words did not fit well enough or brightly enough on the buttons to be visible, but this is what they look like:
Once finished, I will insert them in plastic bags, tie them together with a sugar cookie shaped like a puzzle piece and pass them out to the class. I hope the buttons stick with them for a long time. Someday, they will meet another person with autism. I hope it is something they will associate with a happy feeling and accept and embrace without question. This program did a lot to foster that. I will alway remember and be grateful to everyone who had a part in it.
Some people are just good by nature. We are lucky to be surrounded by them. In a world of hurt, arguing and pain, it is nice to have such a loving supportive community surrounding my child.