-Anthony J. D΄Angelo
Yesterday was a big day for me. I did something I had never done before - talked about autism to a classroom of children.
Only this was no ordinary classroom. This was Helena's classroom, and her 4th grade classmates.
What to say? How do I get the message across?
Maybe I should back up and tell you the message. It is what regular readers of this blog already know.
I am beyond trying to focus on the why Helena has autism. I am focused on the how. How will Helena live with autism and still achieve whatever she wants to achieve? How can these students help someone with autism, since they are more likely to encounter someone with autism than I ever was at their age?
That was my message yesterday. People with autism are different. They think differently, they travel a different road than most, and they all need help and support, but ultimately they can get to the same destination. And achieve great things.
I started by showing a quote from Albert Einstein, that would become important later:
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
So I talked about famous people that are or were suspected to be on the autism spectrum. Albert Einstein. Alexander Graham Bell. John Denver. Darryl Hannah. Matt Savage (For those who have never heard of Matt, he is a 16-year old with PDD-NOS who happens to be a jazz musical prodigy). Different people from different eras and different walks of life, each successful despite autism (or suspected autism).
I then tried to explain autism and living with autism in three different ways:
The Experiment: I gave a paragraph to a student to read in her normal reading voice, while everyone else in the classroom was making as much noise as possible. I also made sure to ask Helena in front of everyone to cover her ears. When the student read no one could hear her, and she couldn't even hear herself! I asked them to imagine that their brain had to sort through that noise every minute of every day of their life. That's what Helena has to do.
The Road Construction (Thanks for this idea Kristen). I showed the students a picture of a road construction zone and asked them what happens when a highway is under construction (road is closed, you need to detour and find another way). I told them that having autism is like having road construction in your brain - while most people can take a straight path to their destination, a person with autism has detours that force their brain to find another way to get there.
Clouds. I showed a cartoon of three animals looking at clouds in the sky, each seeing a different picture in the clouds. I told the class that autism is like that - people with autism see the world a little differently in their brain.
I talked to the class about some characteristics of autism:
The need for structure and routine, and how an abrupt disruption of that routine can literally ruin an entire day.
Sensory overload, reminding the class how I had Helena cover her ears while everyone was making noise. I also talked about the playground with all it's noise and distractions, and even the classroom.
**An aside here. I was talking to Helena's piano teacher (who works extensively with special needs children) and she opened my eyes to the challenges of the modern day classroom. When I was in grade school, we all sat facing the teacher, and had little on the walls save an alphabet and a couple of decorations. Classrooms today are often broken into centers with lots of decorations and maps and students sitting in pods. That's a really distracting environment for a child with autism.**
Stimming. I talked about what stimming looks like, and how stimming is a way a person with autism tries to relieve some of the sensory overload. I told the class that if they see Helena playing with her hair or doing other stimming, it may be good to tell the teacher or Helena's aide to check and see if Helena is okay.
And then, the two most important things I could tell this class:
The need for friendship. I talked about the social difficulties of someone with autism, and how difficult it is for them to make friends. I stressed the need for them to befriend someone with autism, play with them, and be patient with them.
The need for understanding. I talked about how fortunate we are that Helena is high functioning, and that a lot of people on the autism spectrum are not verbal, and face even greater challenges. But they are always trying to communicate and learn, and it's important to understand and recognize that.
I showed them that Helena is, in a lot of ways, just like everyone else:
She loves cats.
She plays piano.
She likes computer games, especially Toontown.
She has tried sports, like T-ball and soccer, and while she wasn't the best player, she always tried her hardest and did her best, and that's what matters (that was for the three girls in the class that were on her soccer team in 2nd grade, one of whom had said some not so kind things about Helena during practice).
She, on her own, tried out and won a part in the 2nd grade Christmas program.
She, earlier this year, expanded her acting efforts (again on her own) and performed at the Missoula Children's Theater in "Free to Be, You and Me."
I then had the class (and Helena) tell me what they wanted to be when they grew up. Helena has always wanted to be a teacher. I brought back the pictures of Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, John Denver, Darryl Hannah, and Matt Savage. We revisited the quote from Einstein, and I told the class that when Helena was diagnosed with autism, we were told she did not have an imagination, something other parents of children with autism may have heard.
I pointed to the great scientist, the great inventor, the great songwriter, the great actress, the great jazz musician, and talked about how to achieve greatness in all these fields, one must have an incredible imagination. And all these people are suspected of or were diagnosed with autism.
They did not let autism beat them, and neither will Helena.
I introduced the class to one final man, and the quote that this whole blog is based on:
Some men see things as they are and ask "Why." I dream things that never were and say, "Why not?"
- Robert F. Kennedy
Most of the students in the class, like Helena, have dreams about what they want to do with their life. And there is no reason that Helena, like the rest of her class, cannot achieve those dreams.
The class seemed really receptive to the presentation, and I even had a boy say that when he becomes a doctor, the first thing he will do is find a cure for autism.
This was the first time I had addressed Helena's class about autism, and a presentation similar to this will be done every year from now on. I did this presentation during Autism
The ultimate goal, as I told Helena yesterday, is for her to one day do this presentation herself. And one day, she will.
Just like one day, Helena will become a teacher and change the world.