Saturday, October 19, 2013


He’s new. But not so new that I felt I couldn’t joke with him about it. We who toil in the fields of special education share a certain carefree gallows humor, don’t we? After a while all those cute little bites and kicks and verbal assaults become so absurd that it’s a little bit funny. And I know he’s seen worse.

So I said “Thanks for putting up with my son’s verbal abuse yesterday,” with a friendly smirk. The Boy’s case manager and her other aide would have laughed and then we’d have had a serious pro-to-pro discussion about it. But this guy? Not so much. I could see the hurt in his eyes and feel the cold edge in his voice as he told me exactly how awful it had been. “He was belligerent,” he said.

The Boy had been having an excellent 4th grade year up until that point. So excellent, in fact, that he’s decided his IEP is bullshit and has taken it upon himself to exit the autism/behavior program.

I do not give permission for this. His teachers, his team, and the principal have been extraordinarily flexible about it, though. The Boy adamantly refuses to be pulled out for his social skills minutes, so his 4th grade teacher is simply teaching the social skills curriculum to the whole class. When there’s a problem (which are much fewer and farther between than in previous years), our kick-ass principal skillfully intervenes instead of the aides. And when there is a need for academic support? Well, that’s all me, baby. They just send the work home and it’s Ma Floor Pie’s House of Free Tutoring.

It’s been working beautifully…sort of. We all know it’s not sustainable. So this past week, when The Boy’s class had a chance to break a volleyball record in PE class and The Boy got so excited that he went all Steinbrenner on some of his terrified classmates and then hid in an equipment closet…the principal had the New Guy take over for her so that she could get back to the business of running the school.


I like New Guy. I feel terrible that my son’s angry words and attitude shook him up like that. I had New Guy’s job last year, and I remember how bad it feels when a kid you thought you were “in” with suddenly turns on you with all the force of his baggage. Even now, in my new job supporting a literacy classroom, it still happens sometimes. It’s a terrible feeling. I absolutely understand.

So when I respond to him, I do it earnestly, with kindness in my voice and what I hope is empathy in my facial expression. Let me explain to you, New Guy, why it is that my son feels “belligerent” about being tethered to an autism/behavior program.

Kids who end up at this program at our school? They are most likely kids who’ve had a spectacular failure at their first school. At age 5 or 6 or even younger, they were labeled the “bad” kid, the “problem” kid. And everybody believed it. Even the kid himself. Especially the kid himself.

Most teachers don’t know what the heck to do with a student like that, and some teachers believe they shouldn’t have to know. Some parents believe their child shouldn’t have to share a classroom with a child like that, and they’re not afraid to fight for that perceived right. Some principals believe that if the students aren’t able to stuff every last autistic tendency in a desk drawer and act like their typical classmates, they don’t belong in their school at all.

That’s pretty much where we were the first time The Boy and I had our first “You have Aspergers” conversation. He was 6 and it was the night before his first IEP meeting. He’d been having such a relentlessly horrible year, and the signs were palpable in both of us. He’d broken out in hives and developed all kinds of tics. I was losing my hair and developing weird phobias. The whole world seemed to be imposing a brutal “truth” on us, that we were unfit and unwelcome, that we were simply wrong and bad and had to shape up fast or suffer the consequences.

In the end, I chose to move him to a different school. And even though it worked out very well for us, nobody’s going to say “Oh, hooray, I get to move to a different school because I’m so very, very different from the other children!” It feels a bit more like a failure. And every time you see that autism/behavior team, it’s a reminder of your own inability to outrun your own “badness.”

“You need to understand that he’s not belligerent against you,” I explained patiently. “He’s belligerent against the program, and his diagnosis, and all that it represents.”

New Guy gets it. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it. It’s a hard job, and I know he’s doing his best.

And I realize that I have a job to do, too.

The Boy and his sister are waiting for me in my classroom. I set up Little Grrl with the American Girl web site and take The Boy to the rug for Phase II of the “You have Aspergers” conversation.

“I’ve given it a lot of serious thought,” I tell him. And it’s true. I have. “But I have decided that you are not going to exit the program. I have decided that you still need it.”

“So you’re saying the IA’s are going to keep bugging me?” He tears up. “Is this because of what happened in PE?” he asks. “Because that was a HUGE MISUNDERSTANDING! And that’s all that it was!”

“No, honey,” I say. And I gather him into my lap like an adolescent baby kangaroo. “It’s because…you still need this program. It’s not there to punish you, it’s there to help you. It’s not your fault. You’ve made so much progress. You’ve come so far. But you will always have Aspergers. It looks different at 9 than it did at 6. But it’s still there. It grows with you.”

“I know,” he says. And he tears up again. “I just wish I could be normal.”

“There’s no such thing as normal,” I say. And we talk about his cousins and friends who have food allergies, dyslexia, ADHD.

“That’s not the same thing as a DISIBILITY!” he cries.  

“Actually, it is,” I explain. “Your cousin who’s allergic to peanuts has a disability with her immune system. Aspergers is a disability with the…I don’t know…the limbic system, I guess.” (I have no idea how accurate either of these statements is, but he buys it.)

“But ADHD is no big deal,” he goes on. “That just means they have more energy, and they’re happy about that!”

“No, honey, they’re not always happy about it,” I say. “I know plenty of kids who wish they didn’t have ADHD.”

“Really?” He’s genuinely surprised.

“YES, really. It’s physically painful for them to just sit in a chair. They want to listen to the teacher but their disability just doesn’t let them. They hate it.” He thinks about that for a minute. “And your cousin definitely wishes she wasn’t allergic to peanuts.”

“That’s true.” And then he says it again. “I just wish I was normal.”

“You wish you didn’t have Aspergers,” I correct him. “And that’s not the same thing as ‘normal.’ The word you’re thinking of is ‘neurotypical’.”

He likes that. The Boy may hate doing vocabulary worksheets, but he loves to learn new vocabulary words.

I grab a few books from our classroom office and flip to the pages with medical illustrations of our brains. The Boy is fascinated. And a little annoyed with me for focusing only on the amygdala and prefrontal cortex when there are so many other parts of the brain.

Then I read to him:

In an autistic brain, messages don’t get sent from one section of the brain to another with the same frequency and efficiency as they do in a neurotypical brain. The ‘parts’ often work well, but they don’t ‘talk’ with each other…

The brain of a person with ASD appears to send far fewer of these coordinating neural messages. The result may be compared to a group of people crowded into a room, all working intently on the same project but never letting anyone know what they are doing. – I Hate to Write, by Cheryl Boucher and Katy Oehler  

He gets it. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it.

I can tell he’s about done with this intense conversation, too. So I wrap it up with my usual talk about being respectful to the other adults at school. And I tell him that New Guy said he was belligerent. The Boy laughs.

“Do you know what ‘belligerent’ means?” I ask.

“It sounds like a kind of ligger-elephant!”

“It does, doesn’t it?” And I teach him his second new vocab word of the day. “Belligerent actually means ‘war-like’.”

“Hmm,” he says, liking the sound of that.

“Seriously, honey, no being a war-like elephant with the teachers! I have to work with these people, you know.”

He knows. He tries. He’ll try again. And fail again. And try again. And so it goes.

I turn him loose and start getting the classroom ready for another day.


Unknown said...

Wow, FP, you handled that amazingly. Well done!

leslieleisel said...

Very nice writing.


Trisha said...

Please teach me how to have this patience and eloquence when handling stressful school situations! I don't think I will survive kindergarten. He'll probably be fine, but I might not make it.

Trisha said...

Please teach me how to handle these stressful school situations with your eloquence and patience! I don't think I'll survive kindergarten. He'll be fine, but I will be dead.

Floor Pie said...

Trisha! Is this WP Trisha who I know IRL? Because message me and we should totally have coffee! My e-mail address is the same. I have much to say on the topic, and I want to hear all about what's been going on with you.

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