Saturday, January 21, 2017

On This Day

I didn’t think I would cry. Or that it would be my students, some of the only people who’ve been keeping me sane and happy during these dark and dangerous times, who would be the ones to tip the scales in the direction of weep-fest. My 6th graders, joyfully returning from a walk-out organized by the neighboring high school to protest the dark and dangerous times. My 6th graders, bragging that they’d ditched the march and gone to 7-11 instead.

And then immediately taking it back upon seeing the disappointment on my face.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because OF COURSE they ditched the march for 7-11, being basically children and all...children who no longer get recess or much of anything beyond endless paper/pencil tasks and ample opportunities to feel bad about themselves; children whose teachers pull me aside in the hallway to scold me for being such a bad babysitter (where are the consequences? how are they being held accountable?! ); children at a school that’s toying with the idea of rolling back inclusion because the teachers have 32 kids in their classes and inclusion is just too hard; children whose teachers have loudly and openly trashed them by name, along with any adult in the building who sticks up for them, at after-school happy hours; children who’ve already lost one champion, Dumbledore taking flight on the tail of his phoenix as the Umbridges of the world slowly, smugly move in (“they really shouldn’t use that title ‘case manager’ in these job descriptions. it’s confusing. you’re really just a teacher.” I shall not tell lies); children whose case manager teacher is sitting motionless at her desk, staring into the computer screen while the tears stream and stream and stream; children whose new president, the one they were supposed to be protesting while they were sneaking off to 7-11, is about to appoint a leader who doesn’t even want this teacher here protecting them from 15-day suspensions and a grading system that punishes – sorry – holds them accountable – for their disabilities.

“You’re giving me a negative vibe, Ms. Floor Pie!” scolds a student, not wanting to hear anything more about freedom equaling responsibility, and storms out of my classroom to play with the other kids cutting class in the hallway. And that’s the tipping point. Here come the water works.

The principal shows up and is thankfully, surprisingly, supportive. Looks into the kid’s face, the kid who’s surely going to give me playful hell on Monday for calling the principal on him, but who still needs to hear that principal say THIS teacher will fight for your education when no one else will! And you want to mess with THIS teacher?

Finally I’m able to sniff and apologize. “I’m sorry you had to see that. But now you know that teachers aren’t robots. We have feelings too, and our feelings get hurt just the same as anyone else’s.” They get it. Because kids, in general, are simply better human beings than adults are much of the time.

Earlier that day, I’d spent my prep period on the phone with the school psychologist who’s doing The Boy’s 3-year reevaluation. She’s beyond amazing, this woman. The school psychologist I’ve been waiting for. She’s got some harsh truths and concerns and hypotheses for me, but my Zod she sees the nuance, too. She sees what I’ve been seeing all along, what I’ve tried to express to blank stares glancing anxiously at their watches around too many conference room tables over the years. Not this time. Even his classroom teachers have written complex, nuanced, frank-but-strength-based whole paragraphs about him in the drafted reevaluation. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Then, as if to underscore the hilarious absurdity of my work/life balance these days, my classroom door opens and in walk three of my boys, my “high flyers” as we say in the biz, deep in conversation with each other while I continue to talk to my son’s school psych as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. A moment later, an administrator comes in, radio in hand, urging them to return to the cafeteria where they’re supposed to be. All four of them vanish as quickly as they appeared.  “Isn’t it great that they felt safe coming to your classroom?” asks a colleague as we laugh about the absurd situation over a small Special-Ed-Supporters-Only happy hour. Yes, I think. It is.

We say our goodnights, I turn on my cell phone, and there it is all over my social media feed like a bitter orange cherry on top, marching into power to gleefully piss on my very livelihood and everything I’ve ever cared deeply about. And I’m crying again, silent and stoic, seemingly endless cascade of tears down my face.

Today, though, my social media feed is all pink hats, ferocity, and inspiration. Driving Little Grrl to her Japanese class this morning, the streets of Seattle are packed with freedom fighters of all descriptions, waiting at bus stops, walking, biking, gathering for group photos before heading off to the march. And when I pick up my phone again it’s full of texts from various pink-hatted family members – not just the ones who live in DC but from all over the nation, taking a stand.

I’m finding this all incredibly encouraging as I plod through my usual Saturday routine of trying to catch up on paperwork while special education is still even a thing. And I’m reflecting on the brightest moment of my teaching yesterday…first period, right after the principal’s lengthy announcement detailing the rules for participating in the walk-out.

“The United States of America is still a free country,” I told them. And even though they’re not supposed to get this information until 8th grade, I drew the Three Branches of Government triangle on the board. “He’s not the king,” I explained, to many students’ relief, and I wrote the names Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, and Pramila Jayapal on the board under the “Congress” point of the triangle. “You don’t have to be 18 to call and email these women,” I said. “Tell them what YOU want from your country. It’s still your country, too.”

And I saw their faces brighten just a little.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


December gathers us in. It calls us out of the darkness, back from our various endeavors; shepherds us safely home through rain-slicked pitch dark streets at 4pm, through lines at the airports, through those last few weeks of school. December calls for us to help, too. Bring coats and food. Welcome them with love when they show up at my classroom door unscheduled, pacing and frustrated, puzzling it out.

Cry a little on the inside but don’t scold when one of them, through the sheer force of the his own anger and sorrow as he tells me the story, absentmindedly forces and forces the window until the rusty old lock breaks off and clunks unceremoniously to the floor, all rust and splintered wood. People who force kids to say “I’m sorry” should watch their faces instead; watch for the moment of impact before they remember to put their tough-guy personas back on. “I…. I didn’t think it would break that easily.”

I don’t say “It’s all right” because, truthfully, it isn’t. But my face betrays something too, maybe a child-like disappointment as earnest and pure as his child-like shocked-at-his-own-strength remorse, and that look between us is really all that’s needed. Later I find him and his buddies joyfully helping the ladies in the office gather up bags of groceries to donate to a local food bank, loading them into the school counselor’s car, students and adults all eagerly buzzing about the prospect of snow this weekend.

December huddles me in to Starbucks, not because I’m that much of a sucker for their  marketing, but because a Christmas-decorated Starbucks was the scene of one of the happiest moments in my life ever – where 13 years ago Mr. Black and I silently rode the hospital elevator down, solemn and unspeakably joyful at once, gingerly holding a black and white ultrasound printout of our little outer-space soon-to-be first baby. A boy, we’d learned only moments ago. So before we went our separate ways to work, we sat near speechless in the hospital Starbucks downstairs, gazing reverently at the first-ever picture of our son, dreaming away under the opulent reds and greens.

December celebrates Little Grrl’s birth. Can’t take a chilly walk through our neighborhood past the Christmas lights without remembering a similar walk Mr. Black and I took almost 10 years ago, pausing to breeeeathe through gut-splitting contractions amid all that merriment. As we hurried into the hospital lobby trying to remember which was the right elevator, a sparkly-white Christmas display caught my eye and filled me with a thread of joy and anticipation through the pain. Santa Claus comes tonight. My parents came, trimming the tree and taking 2-year-old The Boy on various holiday excursions while baby and I huddled into a blissful nest made of holiday movies and delicious meals from the preschool families. 

December sometimes has a Christmas miracle or two up its sleeve. One year, for example, our aging cat came down with a serious kidney infection. “Eric says it could be fatal,” The Boy, age 7, stoically informed us as he and Mr. Black strode into the emergency vet’s waiting room straight from school. Second grader or not, Eric wasn’t wrong. We cancelled our holiday travel plans and stocked up on subcutaneous fluids and a needle disposal bin along with candy canes and presents. We brought our Tiny Tim of a kitty home from the animal hospital and steeled ourselves for heartbreak. But, in true Very Special Christmas Episode spirit, the kitty pulled through almost completely. God bless us, every one.

December gathers us in. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it this year, given the political state of things and its immediate impact on loved ones, on many of my more vulnerable families at school, on the very existence of public education. There are dark and difficult times ahead. Our values and beliefs have been shaken to the core – not just from the election, not just from Standing Rock, not just from the untimely deaths of African American children at the hands of prejudice and ignorant fear…but from the real impact I’m seeing on my fellow “helpers” in the trenches with me.

Because sometimes it gets to be too much. As much as we care, as much as we love, if we don’t let go and move to higher ground, our own caring is going to drag us under.

He’s one of the strongest, one of the very best. He’s practically Santa Claus himself. No…Dumbledore. Not Dumbledore falling from the Astronomy Tower in the 6th book, thankfully, but Dumbledore in the 5th book when he’s temporarily forced out by a growing movement of cynicism and distrust of children, leaving us to form our own little rag-tag “army” of sorts and hope for the best. And he’ll wave goodbye sayin’ don’t you cry…

December breaks our hearts. We learned it on the Monday after Thanksgiving, about five minutes before we had to welcome back our students and all the attendant post-Thanksgiving-pre-Winter-Break madness. A few of us gathered at the back of the library and did that thing teachers do when they’ve been unexpectedly pushed a few thousand feet too far – cry on the inside, in our throats and at the very corners of our eyes without any actual tears or sobs. People were asking me about it all day. “I’m shattered,” I replied plainly. Calm, without hyperbole. “But what can we do? I guess I’ll just have to learn how to be my own Dumbledore.”

And now, I’m typing all this up in another Christmas Starbucks while Bing Crosby serenades us and people come and go in their running/biking garb, every conversation swirling with anxiety and theories about our country’s impending regime change. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” Bing persists, and cynical dismissal feels almost too easy.

December gathers us in. As rocky as this year has been, I still feel the love and joy of the season as strong and poignantly as ever. My boys loading that car with groceries for the food bank. My teacher friends checking in for coffee and gallows humor. Mr. Black with delicious food on the table when I stagger in from the cold dark night covered in my O the Humanity haze, The Boy punctuating my jargon-filled school-related rants with air horn sound effects, bursting into a rousing chorus of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” to cheer me up. Little Grrl regaling me with stories about her day at school that are so carefully organized that I suspect she’s been using a Common Core rubric to plan their delivery.

And my wonderful, wonderful mentors and colleagues out there. Every freedom fighter, every helper, every single one of you who has touched my life and made me a stronger teacher and a better human being, from my ACLU-staffer days to cooperative preschool to graduate school and Seattle Public Schools and beyond. I love you all so dearly.

January will force us back out into the fight and the fray. But December gathers us in. Let’s embrace it. Hold each other, laugh together, eat delicious food together, let ourselves have fun. Troubled times or not, we need this. And we deserve it.

Tidings of comfort and joy, my loves.

It's in every one of us 
To be wise 
Find your heart 
Open up both your eyes 
We can all know everything 
Without ever knowing why 
It's in every one of us
By and by

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Off the Rails

A kid goes off the rails, everybody loses their damn minds, but no one really knows what to do. I’m relatively new to the profession, but I’ve seen it too many times. Different schools, different kids, different adults. But it’s the same no matter what. Everyone’s baggage comes in and drives about 90% of it. No one wants to get too involved even though everybody’s got a damn strong opinion.

Some simply want it punished and shamed out of the kid…or punished and shamed out of the parents. Some want things to change that are too late to change even if we could. Some don’t care what you do as long as it stays out of their backyard. Some have a long list of people and systems to blame but absolutely no ideas about real ways to go forward from here. Some of the people you think are helping you are helping you right off a cliff – maybe not intentionally, but still, that’s the effect. And secretly, cynically, everyone agrees that the kid is on the trajectory he’s on no matter what we do; that we’re basically human duct tape at best and at worst.

“You have a good heart,” a mentor tells me. “You have a good heart, but that’s not what your school is about. You won’t win this. Stay focused on what you can do. Don’t make yourself the target.”


Yesterday I was the target of nothing but a killer migraine that I’d been holding at bay all week. Finally overtook me on Friday, the day the kid finally came back to school only to hide in the bushes, half-heartedly throw a few rocks in the general direction of another student, hide in a bathroom, and curse loudly in the classroom of the teacher who particularly hates cursing in her classroom. Am I suspended now? Can I be suspended now? How about now?

I held the pain and nausea and disequilibrium in a small closet behind my left eye, kept my classroom cool and dark and kept my voice low and calm as we talked through the behavior contract again and he tried not to cry, handed me his phone without looking at me, agreed to the assistant principal’s terms before darting off to lunch.

And then I could finally go, finally go while I was still functional enough to drive, drive myself home to a mercifully empty house, a long, hot shower, and hours upon hours of blissfully medicated sleep.

Waking up many hours later, everything is right where I left it. Q4 progress report assessments to score. Meetings to prepare for. Emails to answer. Worries and resentments to put to rest because what the hell is the point of having any feelings about any of this? It’s not personal. This is our business; managing and processing children and their educations and their behaviors, free and appropriate and public, a great post office or DMV of human experience.

What I’m understanding now is that this IS the job. There is no resolution, ever. There is only the day-to-day flow of behaviors and interventions and different behaviors and more interventions and checks or x’s on the chart.

“You’ll be a teacher they remember,” my mentor said. “You’ll be someone who was kind to them, someone who tried.” He doesn’t say, but clearly implies “But don’t think you’re going to change much of anything.”

Can this be enough? I think, at least for now, that this has to be enough. I’m tired and embarrassed and a bit disillusioned. But I’m not sorry. And I’m not ready to give up. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016


“I don’t want to be crushed by this process” is what I wrote in my journal nearly one year ago at the crack of dawn, typing away at our beach cabin’s kitchen table instead of making pancakes. “I ran so far, so fast, so determined these past three years to simply get here,” I wrote. “I don’t want to implode now.”

But implosion would have been far too concrete and straightforward.

A few slow, luxurious spring-break days later, while the kids snoozed in the loft and Mr. Black went for a late night stroll, I waited for the digital stroke of midnight, keeping a stoic vigil over the Seattle Public Schools Web site. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. And suddenly, there they were. Next year’s special ed teaching jobs. MY special ed teaching job somewhere in there, just waiting for me to activate my future with a click of the “Apply Now” button.

This was a turning point from which I never truly recovered. Up until that moment I’d been running. Driven. Braver and more ambitious than I’d ever been about anything before. I’d seen the light and bolted toward it so determinedly that I still can’t quite remember even making a conscious decision to bolt. It’s like I was raptured here or something. One minute I was working the sensory table at Little Grrl’s coop preschool wondering what I was going to do next year, and then I was blazing ahead toward a goal I’d never even seen on my horizon before. Volunteering, subbing, working full-time as an instructional assistant, attending graduate school and student teaching, and then…here.


It wasn’t as if I’d never hit an obstacle before. Oh, there’d been obstacles. All those instructional assistant jobs I’d applied for that first summer that I didn’t get. Humiliating mistake after humiliating mistake. Bites and bruises and two pairs of broken glasses during my first official year. Finding myself in stark opposition to my own ideals time and time again, feeling lost and wrong and judged. Sputtering Lorax-like over episodes of outright discrimination toward my students from…kind of everywhere. (And each year it comes into sharper and sharper heartbreaking focus – there’s more discrimination toward these children than not.) Still, I kept running.

But now, with the actual prospect of job hunting ahead of me, the landscape had changed. This was my pause at the edge of a cliff. And as I considered my next step and every possible outcome, it all caught up with me. I doubted. I hurt. I opened myself up to acknowledging all the pain and uncertainty and unfairness and impossibility of all that lay in front of me and all that I’d spent the last three years running through to reach this point. What would happen now?

And then…well…instead of taking an intentional next step, I started tumbling down the side of that cliff under the cumbersome momentum of the job hunt. Calls from principals offering me an interview. Or not. Interviews that went beautifully. Or not. Jobs that seemed perfect until they suddenly and frighteningly didn’t anymore. Jobs I wanted so badly even as I felt them slipping away from me in the unimpressed faces around the interview table. Jobs I was sure were The One that didn’t even respond to my initial application. Job offers for jobs I hadn’t even applied for and didn’t want.

May. June. July. And still I tumbled, slowly, awkwardly, head over heels until I finally landed a job that felt like more of a relief than a calling anymore. I wouldn’t be left behind. That in itself was enough to make me feel elated, even as I knew in my heart that this job was so far from what I’d set out to do in the first place. By the time October came and the District displaced me to an entirely different school that needed a teacher, I didn’t even know which end was up anymore.

Yes. I can admit this now. None of this is what I had in mind when I first started running. I knew it would be challenging. But I hadn’t counted on feeling so alone. I hadn’t understood how much it would wear me down to be immersed in other people’s relentless anger and disappointment – the students, their parents, my colleagues. Everyone’s slogging through their own obstacles and pain, knocking each other over and stepping on each other’s toes. No one seems able to recognize their own power. Even I don’t often recognize my own.

I do still love the work. The puzzle of it intrigues me, and there are always plenty of wrongs to right; plenty of injustices to untangle. My students can be such glorious shitheads sometimes, but they are hilarious and brilliant and I love them dearly. It’s a quieter kind of love than the blazing passion that drove me here in the first place. It’s more like working a dozen different complicated puzzles at once, and every so often you get a few steps closer to what looks like a pattern before it deviates back into chaos. But, you know. Sometimes it’s a hopeful chaos.

And here I am, a whole year later, still tumbling down the side of that cliff. Landing my first teaching job wasn’t the end of this story. And it wasn’t a beginning, either. Whatever it was, it’s still being written. Whatever happens next…well, we’ll just have to wait and see.    

Friday, January 1, 2016

Welcome to Year Two

Just about every night during this winter break, I’ve had an absurd but shockingly realistic dream that I was failing and failing hard with my students; barely understanding what my administrators wanted, barely understanding the subject matter I was supposed to teach, grasping desperately to make myself into a human bridge across the gap of what my students really need and the stark reality of resources and logistics. At least I think it was a dream.

2015 was quite the debut into the world of teaching special education. I’d been hoping – cockily expecting, actually – that I’d be snapped up in the spring by elementary schools all across the District. What happened instead was that I was randomly assigned to a high school at the beginning of summer. I turned that job down, but a human resources person persuaded me to seek my fortune in middle school instead of elementary. I was hired in July.

And then what happened? Let’s see…

August – I tried to move into my very own portable classroom that I’d been assigned. This proved more challenging than one would expect, as the part-time person currently inhabiting that classroom refused to vacate, eventually quitting in protest. Not a very warm welcome, but it could not quell my excitement as I diligently studied my caseload and shopped for a mini-fridge and water dispenser.

September – We went on strike, during which time my anxiety hit an all-time spike. Imagine climbing to the top of the highest high dive and then, instead of diving into the pool, you just have to stand there shivering. And holding a picket sign.

By the time school started again, all my joy and confidence had been replaced by terror and self-doubt. But I dove and scrambled and found my mojo again, pulling up and pulling off some real successes, soaring on a genuinely strong rapport with my students and colleagues.

Also, the water dispenser broke. Those 7th graders are thirsty.

October – As part of District-wide staffing adjustments, my school was required to displace two special ed teachers to other understaffed schools in Seattle. As the least senior teacher, I knew it would be me. But it was several weeks before I knew when my actual last day would be, or where I’d be going next. I said goodbye to my students and loaded the mini-fridge and broken water dispenser into my car. Eventually, I landed at a new middle school with an actual classroom in the actual building with a beautiful view of the snow-capped Olympic mountains and Puget Sound. My very first day of work was also Pajama Day, which I took to be a good omen.

November – My new school was also one of the lucky ones chosen to be audited by the State of Washington. That…is a story for another time. Meanwhile, I scrambled to learn my new caseload, build strong and trusting relationships with my new students and colleagues, and plan all new trajectories of instruction.

December – I had some truly incredible moments of being exactly the kind of teacher and case manager I want to be. And a few more moments of locking the door and crying at my desk. The volume of work is staggering, the logistics nearly impossible, and the needs in front of me are constant and intense. Sometimes I’ll be teaching and I can physically feel them slipping away, drifting and sinking fast, so far beyond my reach. Other times…and those times are much, much fewer and farther between…they’re with me.

At job interviews they always ask you “How do you know if your students are learning,” and you’re supposed to say “Progress monitoring, CBMs, baseline assessments, spreadsheets, blah blah blah.” But I swear, I can tell that they’re learning from their eyes and shoulders. Something opens. They get lighter somehow. They’re in motion. And just like anything else to do with childhood, it doesn’t happen in tidy little 50-minute increments. It comes in fits and starts, weeks and weeks of nothing and then a BLAST into the stratosphere, followed by weeks and weeks of more nothing.

But, because I am still accountable to administrators, I do attempt to quantify their learning with progress monitoring assessments. Right before break, I had a stack of them sitting in my inbox for two days. I was terrified to score them, fearing that my hopes would be dashed, fearing that I wouldn’t see in the numbers what I’d been seeing in my students’ eyes during the past few weeks of our fractions lessons. I knew they were learning. I just knew. What would I do if those numbers told me otherwise?

Finally, with the long, luxurious days of winter break dwindling, I dug them out of my long-neglected tote bag full of work I’d brought home and sat down to score them. And let me just say…their quantifiable progress is astounding. Astounding! One dude went from 0/25 to freaking 22/25. I may have actually squealed with joy. I may have teared up a little.   

I’m not failing. There are days when it feels like I am, every minute. But I’m not. I simply know that I am not.

January – I don’t usually make my New Year’s resolutions public. But these are so important, and so likely to get lost in the wild current of first-year-teaching when school starts again, that I feel I need witnesses to them.


In 2016 there will be yoga classes. There will be meditation and long walks. There will be time spent with my family during daylight hours.

In 2016 there will be Right Action without outraged self-righteousness or crippling fear or self-punishing work ethic. Simply go forth and do right, with plain kindness and gentle detachment.

In 2016 there will be presence to stay with the ebb and flow of the students in front of me, and there will be presence to be the teacher I truly am. Learn and take feedback, yes. Work within the context appropriately and responsibly, yes. But follow my unique strengths and sharp instincts, too. Trust it. There is so much good there. I’m sure of it.

Welcome to Year Two. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Does "Autism Awareness" Look Like?

In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, here's a Floor Pie classic from 2012. There's a lot that needs to happen on the autism front, but I hope we can all agree that regarding children with ASD and their parents with kindness (or at least without resentment and judgment) is an important first step.

April is Autism Awareness Month and everybody’s got something to say, so I guess I’ll chime in too. This will be pretty simple, actually. I’m not going to ask you to “light it up blue,” or read up on the latest conspiracy theories about autism’s rise, or watch Temple Grandin (although that is a pretty fabulous movie). All I really need anybody to do – this month and every month, really – is to simply be aware of autism.

And, okay, something a little more complicated after all: Be aware of our own very deeply engrained ignorance, prejudice, and misconceptions about autism. Be aware that we may think we know…but we don’t. We don’t know much of anything. 

Yes, “we.” I’m a proud Aspergers parent myself and half the time I barely have a freaking clue. I try to second-guess and get it wrong (way wrong). I just plain forget sometimes that The Boy doesn’t like surprises – even really good ones. I forget that no matter whose birthday it is, he will always, always blow out the candles before we’re done singing “Happy Birthday” because he can’t stand the intense auditory sensation of a roomful of mixed-key singing. Sometimes I acquiesce to strangers out of meaningless politeness instead of sticking up for him. Sometimes I lose patience with him even when I know better. 

But I have to forgive myself and keep trying to do better. Aspergers parenting can be a counterintuitive endeavor. And if that weren’t challenging enough, most of us adults have a lifetime of misinformation and prejudice to overcome. 

We grew up in a time when “retarded” was a perfectly acceptable pejorative. We went to school in mostly non-mainstreamed classrooms and, as far as we knew, there was no such thing as an Aspergers diagnosis. There was a boy in my small rural elementary school who, in retrospect, was clearly on the spectrum. He cried and hit and grabbed the scissors out of our hands. He’d melt down at the slightest provocation. We all came to regard him as the “bad” kid in our class. Even me. I was painfully shy and had my own issues going on, but it felt good to feel superior to someone

In third grade, our teacher lost all patience with him and sent him to the principal’s office to be paddled. We could hear him wailing and screaming all the way down the hall and around the corner. It was awful. But somehow, we rationalized that he must have deserved it. An adult said so.

I was reliving that moment a lot when The Boy was younger. How awful it was to be on the other side of that situation, to watch his classmates sitting stoically, hurt and puzzled while The Boy pushed or grabbed or wailed his way through some perceived injustice or other. At least we live in a state where corporal punishment is prohibited in schools. But have we evolved much further than that? 

Right now, right here in touchy-feely lefty-loosey Seattle, elementary school special ed students are getting detention, and even suspension, because their behavior is routinely mistaken for defiance. It’s happened to The Boy. It’s happened to a lot of special ed families I know, autism or otherwise. When our children aren't proactively well-supported, those dominos go down pretty fast. They may feel extremely threatened and panicked and shift into “fight or flight” mode. What does that look like? Tantrums. Hitting. Spitting. Saying rude or hurtful things. Biting. Running away. 

We adults have a lot of baggage around those behaviors. We feel disrespected. We feel embarrassed. We feel our darkest insecurities being summoned by our inability to control the situation. Whatever deep-seated, subconscious childhood beliefs we may have about “bad” kids are unearthed. We feel like kids ourselves, being pushed around on the playground. We feel afraid. And sometimes, under the weight of all that baggage, we make exactly the wrong choice and only make things worse. 

It’s a natural human impulse, I think, to want to make someone feel bad for making us feel bad. That’s basically what punishment is. It’s not so much about teaching positive behaviors; it’s about making someone feel the weight of the “bad” thing they’ve done and suffer like we suffered. And maybe there’s a time and a place for that version of discipline. But this isn’t it.

We need to recognize our baggage for what it is, and we need to challenge it. When The Boy blows out the candles on someone else’s cake because he can’t stand the “Happy Birthday” song, even I think he’s being an asshole. But that assumption is fundamentally wrong. I can teach him better coping skills for being in a noisy room. But I can’t attach a moral judgment to his lack of coping skills. And neither should anybody else.

I guess what I’m saying is: What if we just assumed that a child is behaving badly not because he’s a jerk who needs to be put in his place, but because he has real challenges and needs a different approach? If we must jump to conclusions, let’s try jumping to an empathetic one. Let’s remember that the dominant culture decides what “social” and “normal” should be, but that doesn’t make expected behaviors come any more naturally to children on the autism spectrum. They're working very hard just to show up and be in the room with everyone else.

And instead of assuming the parents don’t know or don’t care, consider the possibility that we do know and care; that the misbehavior breaks our hearts; that we do everything we can to help our kids learn to function within the parameters of “normal” but it doesn’t happen overnight; that we can barely take a step without weighing the implications. This tends to drain our energy for faking shock and remorse over our children’s every autistic move in public. But for Zod’s sake, it doesn’t mean we don’t care.

Be a little patient. Be a little forgiving. Remember that you don’t really know. Nobody does.

And that, for me, is what autism awareness looks like.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Apple and Tree

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am an outspoken supporter for autism awareness. Since The Boy’s diagnosis in 2010, I’ve worked tirelessly as an advocate and as an aspiring special ed teacher myself to bring empathy and acceptance to children like mine.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that people have been fondly, lovingly, with the best of intentions I’m sure, theorizing behind my back that I am on the autism spectrum myself. A friend of mine told me about it, expecting I’d find it as hilarious as he did. And for a moment, I did. But when I opened my mouth to laugh, all I could do was cry. I mean, literally. I sat there and cried.

My friend was mortified, of course, and apologized sincerely with an outpouring of support and love, saying all the right things. I accepted the apology and had to admit, I was as surprised as he was by my reaction. Haven’t I been saying “We’re here, we’re weird, get used to it!” all along? Haven’t I acknowledged that The Boy is not the only one in our wonderfully wacky little nuclear family who has all these delightful quirks and challenges?

And, okay, you know. Maybe I am on the spectrum. I can’t deny that I have some of the notable quirks. I’ve openly admitted that my social skills were appalling well into young adulthood and still kind of are. I suspect that I had what we now know as selective mutism when I was young, although the adults just thought I was extraordinarily well behaved. My classmates hated me for it, though. Endless harassment. I couldn’t understand what their big problem was. Why would I talk just for the sake of talking? What would I say and to whom would I say it? Highly illogical, the whole business.

So, yeah. I was a big weirdo, which frequently annoyed the hell out of my mother and embarrassed the hell out of one of my sisters. I was pretty universally teased and bullied all the way into high school until about 10th grade, when I guess everyone found more fun things to do. I gradually managed to crawl my way out of it, finding theater, writing, music, crushes on boys, and dreams of one day moving far the fuck away from all this and never turning back. I grew up, I put it behind me, found my tribe, and moved on. The end.

Well, no. Not the end at all.

I was about one year into parenthood when I found myself rather a misunderstood outsider again, this time because of The Boy’s challenging behavior instead of my own. I think one of the reasons I fought so hard for him was an unconscious raging against the way I had been marginalized myself as a child. There was nothing wrong with HIM, and there was NOTHING. EVER. THE FUCK. WRONG. WITH ME.

I had research on my side this time, and everything I was learning in parent ed classes, and the excellent work of disabilities rights activists who’d come before me as well as my contemporaries who fight more bravely and outspokenly than I have. We’ve made a fair amount of progress in the five years since receiving the diagnosis.

But even now, even as I’m building a stronger and stronger base of knowledge and skills at one of the best graduate schools in the country, we struggle just like anybody else struggles. There are always going to be adults who take his autistic behaviors at face value and find him offensive and ill-intentioned. The fact that he’s growing into rather a smart-ass isn’t helping any. But at least he has more fight in him than I did. I’m so proud of him. I’m proud of both of us, quirks and all.

So why did I cry?

I guess it was the shock of still, STILL being held to a mainstream standard after all the progress I’ve made. I may feel comfortable and happy in my own skin now, but I’m never going to outrun that little weird girl that nobody liked. And even though people have learned to appreciate me for my novelty-act appeal, they still basically identify me as “other,” even if it is with love.

It hurts because of all the baggage attached to it. I love being different, but I didn’t always. Being different caused me more than pain. It caused me to grow up simply, stoically believing that there was something fundamentally wrong with me; that I was “less than,” unworthy, and incapable. I wasn’t trying to be different. I simply was. I simply am. This is the only way of being I’ve ever known. I can’t…not be this way. I don’t even want to not be this way.  

So, now what? Soldier on, I guess, secure in the knowledge that at least most people like me for my weirdness now instead of hating me for it. I suppose I could pursue an official diagnosis, but to what end? Having a label to put on it would have been useful when I needed social skills and executive functioning support as a child. But I doubt it would make much difference in my life now, other than providing me with a different sort of soapbox.

Which leaves me pretty much where I was before I was aware of any of this. We’re here, we’re weird, get used to it.

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