Autism Awareness: Strange and Beautiful
The building is no longer there, they're putting up million dollar homes on the site, but once upon a time there was a school that was all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Originally it was an elementary school, but when enrollment declined, they closed the site. A few years later they moved the Enrollment Center for the district over there, then PreK through 22 years-old Autistic students, then the district's social worker and so on and so on... Transitional Kindergarden, Preschool, and finally, Independent Study and Home School were added, which is where I joined in. Oh, and I almost forgot, for the first year, someone brilliantly planned to take all of the near-expulsion middle school kids from the two schools, move them to one classroom and put me in charge. Me! A teacher who'd previously only taught high school social studies and who'd spent the past eight years as a counselor for middle school and continuation. "We'll give you an aide," they said. "We'll bring in someone to teach Math," they said. Needless to say, by April I had pneumonia and was a wreck.
I never spent much time in the main building other than walking through the wing where the Pre-K Autistic kids were housed. My hooligans and I were shipped out to the portables. I often made that walk through their wing as quickly as possible. To the lay person, it sounded like children were being tortured. Screams could be heard all day long, especially from the communal bathroom where the doors were kept open for security purposes. We'd been assured that this was just a day in the life of the kids on the Autism spectrum, but as a mom, it was incredibly hard to listen to. I'd walk through their wing offering smiles to the kids who weren't screaming and to the staff who were barely holding it together, it seemed. They were so patient. Never raised their voices. I would always think, "how the hell can they take that all freakin' day?"
One afternoon I was walking through their wing and I smelled a really strong odor. It was so strong it made my eyes water. I have asthma and I'm really careful with fragrances, but this was men's scent, not flowery, so I didn't go into immediate asthma attack. As I turned the corner, I beheld the most strange and beautiful sight I'd ever seen in a school.
Smiling four-year-olds, dressed in only their Pull-ups, were being supported on top of the tables in the wet area as they slipped around in mounds and mounds of shaving cream! They squealed with delight. They squished and sloshed it between their fingers and toes. Their laughter was contagious and even though my hooligans were waiting for me, I stopped and watched in awe. The head teacher, Cal I'll call him, stepped to my side and addressed one of the aides.
"What is this," I asked in wonder. He smiled down at me.
"It's a great sensory activity for them. They love the sensations."
"No kidding," I asked. "I wanna do it to!" Cal laughed at me and then went to assist his aides. I stayed and watched until I figured I'd better go or my classroom might be on fire with my aide tied to a chair in the middle of the room.
Each day after that I would linger a little longer, asking Cal or one of his aides a little more about what they did. If I was outside, I'd stop by the fenced-in area where the kids could play on tricycles and with balls. Some would sit off by themselves. Some would kick the tree over and over. And some would cling to the bars of the fence and reach through, screaming for someone to rescue them. The program grew and grew until I started to hear the staff grumble about needing more help. And they did. They were all wonderful people who walked around with kids clinging to each of their legs and often one or two in their arms. Day after day they worked tirelessly with these kids. They even had some runners!
One morning I left my classroom and headed toward their wing. The door opened and a boy ran out onto the blacktop outside my room. He froze and laughed. Then he looked around and the laughing stopped. He murmured to himself and walked in a circle. I kept my distance but I was freaking out! Did no one know he was gone? I waited a minute, ready to grab him up and take him back. At that moment, my eyes tracked to the small window in the door to see Cal standing there. He motioned for me to come in.
"We're trying to work on this behavior. He runs because he wants to be chased. As long as I can see him, he's fine. He'll eventually come back if no one chases him." In a moment or two, the boy came back to the door. Unbelievable. Cal, like all of his staff, knew these kids and their needs so well.
We remained at that site for another three years, but I switched to teaching High School Independent Study, which was less taxing on my immune system. Word came down that housing the Special Ed programs at an independent site was breaking ed code and the teachers were told the next year they would be heading back to their home schools. They were relieved that they'd have the support of their fellow teachers at their grade levels, but we were all kind of sad we'd be split up. It was time for our little program to become it's own school, so we were making plans as well.
I'll never forget those years and what I learned from watching Cal and his staff. My son was a baby at the time and eventually came to the preschool on that campus. I'd walk in with him in my arms and glance at their wing and sigh, thinking how fortunate I was that my son was healthy and well. He's had his own share of issues in school, but we're making it. Every time I've had to meet with a teacher over his behavior, or each time he and I struggled over school work, I thought about his counter parts in the Autism program and wondered how they were developing. I knew they were in good hands. I knew they were getting the best education possible. I just hoped they got more sensory experiences that allowed them to laugh without a care in the world. I want the strange and beautiful for them.