Tonight I read “How My Autistic Son Got Lost in the Public School System“. This article is honest, I relate to the mother’s point of view. It is sad and I believe her story is true for many children. I read this article aloud to Brady. He was interested and agreed to share his thoughts about what school was like for him.
In kindergarten we had not embraced the reality of autism. To us, Brady was shy, smart and loved routine.
He had a good vocabulary, was ahead with school topics like counting and reading and behind with social skills. It was easier to pretend when we were at home that kindergarten would be a breeze.
I asked Brady what was kindergarten like.
He said, don’t ask me that, ask me about a part of kindergarten.
I asked him, how was recess?
When I was at recess when I was 5, I did not like it. Kids were everywhere. It bothered me. I did not have a safe spot. I kind of just walked around. I kind of did not play many games I guess. I did not know where I belonged.
Brady’s teacher was ideal. She used lots of visual cues. She had a gentle voice. She followed a detailed and unvarying routine that he quickly learned. She loved science and art. She did not surprise them. If she was going to get her hair cut, she would tell the kids when they came into school tomorrow she would look different because her hair would be shorter. She was Mary Poppins perfect. He loved kindergarten but never told me what happened during the day and after school he cried off and on constantly until bedtime, exhausted from the day out of the house.
I ascribed the easy tears to the fact that he was low energy and school had depleted him (correct). I overlooked his silence as a personality trait, he was just an introvert. A shy kid. I did not know at the time that he was not quiet. He was stifled. Even with his clear speech and good vocabulary, he lacked the ability to volunteer information, to be open and descriptive. Because of this, if he was hurt or in trouble, it was not possible for him to tell me unless I asked him a direct question.
I found out about the bullying in a round about way. We were at the pool and I was changing out of my wet suit. The boys were standing against the stall so I could see their feet. Max ran away (he was 3, he did that). I said to Brady, “Brady, stay with your brother!”. I hurriedly dressed and ran to the exit, fully expecting to see both boys standing in the doorway. But they weren’t there. They weren’t anywhere. For a moment, I was at a public pool and both of my children were lost. That is a feeling I will never forget. And then I saw them.
They were both in the big pool, Brady was pulling his brother by the back of his swim shirt to the steps. Brady could swim. Max could not. I ran to the pool and pulled a dripping Max into my arms. He was fine, just mad that I had pulled him out. I can swim! He protested, I’m a big boy! I can do it!
Not wanting to argue, so grateful that he was okay and that Brady had done every single thing right and never left him for a second I tried to think of what to say, so that it would never happen again.
What, I said, what if a big kid held you down and you couldn’t get up?
My heart was going a million miles an hour as I held my sweet boy and then Brady piped up in his clear voice and said, Yes Max, like what happens to me at school every day.
My head went white. The inside of my brain only saw white. I looked at Brady, not wanting to frighten him and I said.
After you get pushed down at school and can’t get up then what do you do?
And he said “the whistle blows and it’s time to line up“
And that’s when I found out that my son was being bullied at school. Because I asked him a direct question and it unlocked his words and he told me.
It had happened for weeks. An older boy waited for him in the hallway, or he waited for the boy. I actually think he started to wait for the boy, that he had made it part of his routine. He would wait by his backpack in the hall, away from the teachers. They were supposed to drop off their backpacks and go back outside for playtime before school. And an older student would growl at him and knock him down and hold him down. Because it bothered him that my son did not respond to him and answer him. And it made him mad that even when he was knocking him down and holding him down that my son would stay rigid and silent.
At least that is how I imagine it.
I imagine some parents would have been mad, I know I was mad and then I realized that this might happen every year. And that I can’t afford to be mad. Mad doesn’t help him. So we worked it out, that’s another blog post. Suffice it to say, the school was great, the bullying stopped. But the day I found out he was bullied was the day I decided that since he would not fit in, he was going to learn to be a leader, because bullying is a dance between the bully and the target and I needed him to learn how to not be a target. I needed him to learn how to be himself. No stifling. No shame. Help him find his voice so I would not have to worry about asking him the exact right question to unlock his story.
I don’t like to write such a personal story about Brady, but it is a powerful story and I hope it sticks in your head. Especially the part about being able to talk, and having a great vocabulary but not capable of asking for help.
Speech and human development are marvelous complicated things.
You may not want to know if your child is autistic, but whether I knew it or not, he was. He was born this way. Allowing myself to be distracted from truth that socially he was lost, in group settings he was overwhelmed did not help him.
I asked Brady for 5 things that he needed help with when he was in kindergarten. Even if you can’t order up the perfect experience for your child, this list can help give you an idea of how granular and immediate the needs of a 5 year old are. A quiet room, a quiet seatmate. The reassurance of routine.
1. A detailed schedule that does not change.
2. A quiet classroom, I like when the kids are quiet.
3. I liked sitting next to Angelina she was a bright spot in kindergarten and first grade. She is quiet.
4. I like my teacher to have a soft voice. I like it when she claps to get order instead of using words.
5. No loud cheering or clapping or bell ringing.
Thanks for taking the time learn what school was like for him, I hope it helps you understand the autistic child in your life. Perhaps your child’s classmate, or student of yours? Perhaps your own child?