Autism awareness teaches more than just facts
Autism awareness is everything. The difference between being unaware and awareness can be illustrated in looking at my son’s high school experiences and the journey he took toward social interaction. In reflecting on these emotionally charged years I realized something else…. there is enormous harm inherent in a school system that does not provide autism awareness to its general student population.
I taught at the high school level years ago, during the same time that my son Matt was a student in a different high school. I would bring Matt to some of my school events and this simple act of inclusion paid off in his ability to interact socially with his peers. We attended events at his school also – but with quite a different outcome.
One of the events was an academic competition between area schools. I was one of the science judges. Matt would sit in the audience with me until the science portion was announced, at which time I would take my place at the judges table leaving Matt to stay in his seat and watch, listen, and draw. Matt always brought pencil and paper – it was one of those behaviors that calmed him – sort of like Linus and his blanket (Charlie Brown’s best friend). For the first few competitions he would draw until the match began, at which time he would then sit up straight and listen to each question and answer. After a few competitions I noticed just how much knowledge this child kept under wraps. Sometimes his answers were wrong, but most times he was right. He answered each question in a whisper as he competed by himself. Matt’s forte was (and still is) History and Geography. During these questions I would be sitting with him and he would quietly answer each question as if it each were common knowledge. He would give a long slow sigh if the students got it wrong, as if he just couldn’t fathom anyone not knowing such simple historical events or locations.
Realizing he could be an asset to his school’s academic team we had Matt join - only to be left out of the group practices. They would never allow him to compete having already decided that Matt couldn’t do it. His autism affects his speech, which is hesitant. Under stress it is even more so, and he will struggle to initiate that very first word. Once he gets the first word out the rest is not a problem. Practice was everything. By assuming he couldn’t do it they guaranteed he couldn’t do it. Matt’s stress was too much. He wasn’t fitting in and he knew it. We decided he should just drop out.
Sitting in the audience with me, and with no pressure to respond, Matt easily answered most of the questions at every match, year after year. His school missed out on a very knowledgeable competitor – Matt missed out on social interaction with a team of his peers. Each time his school was up against my school Matt rooted for mine – not his. Do you blame him? At the matches for my school Matt was in seventh heaven. You see, many of my students were competitors and they knew about Matt. I had told them about autism, what it means, what behaviors are evident and who Matt really was and they eagerly asked questions and sought information. Matt’s introduction to real peer social interaction actually was initiated by my students at the academic competitions. I had explained to my students during class that the first introduction would seem a bit strange as Matt would look downward and most likely not speak to them, but if they came over again he would actually greet them by name and look right at them. Several of the students tried it out – stopping by for the introduction before the competition and returning after the competition to say good-bye. They were amazed at the difference between the two meetings. Matt would smile and looking right at them, wave and say good-bye as if they were long-time friends.
Matt got to know my students after weeks of academic competition, so it came as no surprise that whenever I had another school event to go to (plays, sports, and dances), Matt was eager to come along. He was approached at football games, baseball games, and plays by my students every single year and that made a world of difference. He felt as if he belonged there and it made him feel good about himself.
He went out for sports at his school only to be left sitting on the bench, never once given the chance to prove himself to be just another kid. At my school, the wrestling coach wanted him to be their official videographer. At his school he was never accepted. At my school they loved him. The secretaries hung his drawings on their walls, the students asked him to come to their plays and when they saw him out in public places always stopped to chat. Student often asked to see the latest in his art portfolio which he carried with him everywhere. The differences between the students and adults at his school and those from my school were blatantly obvious. During school hours he had a wonderful paraprofessional and he loved his school, but it was at mine that he felt free to be who he was.
The most memorable event came in Matt’s senior year – his prom. He couldn’t have done that type of social event if it had not been for the autism awareness at my school. At my high school, prom was a really big deal, with decoration of the gym consuming the entire spring semester. Prom was always elaborately creative with several departments lending their expertise; art, drafting, building trades, home economics, and even P.E. (for the labor). The gym would be transformed over a period of months into magical gardens with waterfalls (real water!), sculpture lined pathways, and cozy dining areas with drink fountains and fancy appetizers. As one of the senior sponsors I was a chaperone – and I brought Matt.
The first time I took him with me to prom Matt was only 12 years old. He looked around, took pictures, ate some cookies and drank some punch. He was introduced to new people and watched the students dance, but he stayed on the sidelines and walked the perimeter. The next year he got more into it and even danced with the young daughter of one of my teacher-friends. The year after that he even danced with a few of my students. The young ladies would come over and engage him in a short conversation and then ask him to dance. Shy at first, they would gently take his hand and walk him to the dance floor. They understood what autism meant and what Matt had to deal with in regards to sensory stimulation and troubles with speech. They were gentle and soft-spoken. It didn’t take long for Matt to feel comfortable in such a large gathering of people his own age. They were friendly … and they were safe.
The years went by until finally the time arrived for Matt to attend his own Senior Prom. When asked if he wanted to go he declined at first, but when he learned his two friends were going - and they wanted Matt to be there - he soon changed his mind. Getting him fitted for a tux, buying flowers and choosing a place to eat were all minor decisions. The major decision was getting a date. Matt doesn’t date. The social mingling of a boy-friend and girl friend couple are beyond his comfort zone.
My husband and I talked it over and decided if Matt were to have any fun at his prom he would have to go with someone he knew well, someone he could have a great time with, someone he could be himself with, someone who knew him . . . like his step-sister, Sarah. We called Sarah, who was at college, and asked if she would be interested in taking Matt to prom. The request was met with a resounding “Yes!” She would come home from college on that weekend and escort Matt to his Senior Prom!
The big day arrived. Matt got dressed in his tux and at first pulled at the collar and complained about the tie, but after hearing all the great compliments on his attire, decided it wasn’t so bad. He knew he needed to wear the tux – he had seen the young men at my school each year all dressed in one. Sarah dressed in a pale lavender gown with her hair French-braided - she looked beautiful! Matt gave Sarah her wrist corsage. Sarah gave Matt his boutonniere. We took pictures of the smiling faces of a very handsome pair.
They went to dinner with Matt’s friends and sat with them at the prom. There was laughing, conversation, and dancing. For days afterward people asked me, “Who was the beautiful young lady that went with Matt to Prom?” Part of me wanted it to remain a mystery, but I was too proud to keep it a secret.
Going to Prom was a milestone. I never would have guessed that Matt would’ve been willing to subject himself to the noise and the lights. He was comfortable in that large group because he had practiced going to similar events for years. He truly enjoyed his prom because he knew how to go to prom. Matt was a senior and going to prom solidified his feelings of pride. He realized he had achieved what each of his siblings had achieved – and he was going to graduate! The weeks after prom flew by and Matt stayed on cloud-9 the entire time.
Would Matt have gone to prom if I hadn’t subjected him to all my high school events? I don’t think so. Matt found acceptance at my school that he didn’t have at his own. Classroom acceptance is limited as the other students knew he was autistic and that he was “special-ed.” They didn’t realize he was a young adolescent just like them with feelings and intelligence. After school programs are ways for students to interact socially, but he couldn’t do that at his own school. The students there were unaware and that alone can lead to bullying or misconceptions about ability. The two friends Matt had were children he had grown up with - their mothers and I are friends. Matt’s friends were aware.
I honestly feel that had he not had the many practice sessions at my school with my autism-aware students he would not have been comfortable enough to attend his own prom. Events at his own school were too stressful for him. Coaches considered him a liability. Other student’s tried to make fun of him. It was different at my school. My students learned about autism and learned about the ways in which to interact with my son. They were eager to meet him and enjoyed bringing him into their fold. Their openness to learn, to interact and to genuinely discover who Matt really was made all the difference.
The difference on how autism was viewed was determined by the degree of autism awareness students at each school had. What is needed in every school is an autism awareness program that reaches across the curriculum so that students can have the opportunity to learn and understand.
Understanding autism – isn’t that really the main obstacle parents and their children face? It’s time to bring autism awareness into the schools.