Autism Spectrum Disorders: Why Knowing Really IS Half the Battle
“No big deal, my son gets kicked out of stuff all the time!”
When my friend made this carefree announcement, I admit I was surprised. Mind you, it wasn’t because of her son’s having been "kicked out," on the contrary, I could completely relate. In fact, I’ve heard so many variations of “please don’t bring your child back here,” I could probably write a book about it. Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. But I was genuinely surprised by her casual nonchalance on the subject. Wasn’t she even the teensiest bit embarrassed? After all, our children’s behavior is a reflection of our parenting skills, right? Well, maybe not always.
For me, it all started when my second child was only eight or nine months old. All of the other mommies were taking their wee babes to a “French for Infants” class. I signed right up; hey, why not? The half-hour class, which was more or less a musical puppet show en Français, was popular with those who had already tried it. Reportedly, the babies were enthralled with the colorful puppets and lively songs, and the parents got a little social time with one another. True, I questioned how my little guy would be able to sit through the full half hour. But, thought I, the class was intended for babies his age, so all us parents would be in the same boat. How bad could it be?
There I was, all spruced up in my mommy-about-town attire, (I had even curled my hair.) And there was he, my darling baby boy, all bright-eyed and sparkling clean. We joined the other parent-child duos sitting on the floor in a semi-circle, all eagerly facing the teacher. The teacher pulled out her puppets, a collection of creatures from the deep, and began to sing, bobbing the corresponding sea-creature in time with her song. In the center of the circle lay a pile of matching sea-creature toys. I suppose the idea was for the children to hold the right critter at the right time, and thereby associate the object with the French word they were hearing. Righty-O, I thought, we can do this! And all went according to plan…for about one minute.
As I should have predicted, my son was not enthralled with the musical medley. In fact, he seemed oblivious to anything outside of his own skin. Right away, he was irritated with the scratchiness of the carpet. Using me as a means to escape the offending floor, he tried to climb on my head, hanging from my hair with little vice-like clutches. When I held onto him, he reacted to my touch by screeching at the top of his lungs. I blushed and smiled around at the ogling group. None of the other babies had yet moved a muscle. They sat serenely, snuggled into their parent’s laps like contented kittens. This is going to be a long half-hour, I thought.
I snatched up a beanbag lobster and tried to distract my child with it. “Homard,” chirped the helpful teacher. My son aimed a swift kick at the fluffy crustacean and sent it sailing. It soared in an arch, spinning on its outstretched claws like an Olympic gymnast, until—plop—it landed right in the lap of a very startled baby girl. She stared--where had this red menace come from?--then began to howl. The children on either side of her pointed at le homard and screamed. The teacher stood up, retrieved her beanie-lobster, and stuffed it unceremoniously into her pocket. The class resumed.
“…bloop, bloop, bloop, va le poulpe,” sang the teacher, swaying back and forth while waving a glittery pink octopus.
We can do this, we can do this, I assured myself. Unfortunately, my son had other plans. Already he was attempting to lay siege upon the brightly hued sweater of the nearest mommy. (Especially bright colors used to annoy him. Thankfully, he has since gotten over that one.) I hugged him close, trying to subdue his attack on the wanton garment. He howled and arched, smacking me in the nose with the back of his head. I saw stars. When I'd recovered sufficiently, I decided to leave the circle. I thought things might go more smoothly if we excused ourselves to the back of the classroom. From there, we could still watch and listen but my son would have a little more freedom of movement. Things did not go more smoothly. Suffice to say, that after several messes and a lot more disruptive noise, the teacher was offering me a free Baby Learns French CD if I would just go away and not come back.
Fast forward a year or so to the great gymnastics class fiasco (read about that here,) followed by the dreaded swim class debacle and then, our proudest moment, the infamous church camp boot.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Then when my son was three years old, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Things began to make a little more sense. Now don’t get me wrong here, I'm NOT saying that my child has a hall pass for bad behavior, nor am I using his ASD to justify my own parental shortcomings. What I am saying, is that knowledge really is half the battle. Once I knew of my child’s diagnosis, I at least knew which direction to go for help. When it comes to ASDs, there is a wealth of helpful information out there. There are also highly educated people who understand the workings of the “spectrum” child’s mind. It takes careful observation and in-depth understanding to equip ourselves with the tools to guide and teach any child, most especially those children who learn a little (or a lot) differently from the "norm." As Maria Montessori once said:
The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: the activity must lie in the phenomenon.
Did you know that 1 out of every 50 children is diagnosed with ASD? With statistics like that, no wonder my friend was so comfortable with the escapades of her own spectrum child. Whether as a parent or teacher, many of us benefit enormously by a better understanding of our spectrum children.