"The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!" - Piglet quote on the wall of our sensory gym

“The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!” – Piglet quote on the wall of our sensory gym

Last week I got an email from one of Howie’s teachers.  She explained that they had been working on a math assessment test about money and coins.  The directions were to count the money and show your work.  The teacher said that Howie had refused to show his work. His explanation was that he didn’t have to “because I have autism.”

She wrote that they had worked through the refusal by reminding him that this was for his third grade teachers and while she knew he could do it in his head, he needed to show his new teachers that he understood the work.

Now Howie has never been a big fan of reviewing concepts.  “I already know how to do this!” is a frequent refrain when doing assessments or review work.  But this was a new wrinkle.  He had never refused to do work because of autism before.

I wrote back and said I was kind of stunned by all of this since we’ve never said anything like that to him or around him before.  We’ve always talked about autism – and specifically his autism – in a positive light.  Talking about the gifts it brings him.  Lately we had been discussing how there are times when different brains have a harder time with some activities, and that’s why sometimes he needed to leave the room to take a test, or use his headphones or have a sensory break.  But we’ve never said he couldn’t do…anything.

I expressed my surprise at his statement and said I would talk with him about it.

Later that afternoon, Howie and I were sitting across from each other on the floor of our living room.  His iPad was on his lap and he was creating his newest world on his Blocksworld app.

“Hey bud'” I said. ” I heard that you had some trouble working on your math assessment today?”

“Yeah.  But the fruit snacks helped me get through it.”

“What was hard?”

“I had to write it all out but I knew the answer.”

“Your teacher said you told her that you couldn’t do the test because you had autism?”

” I said I didn’t have to do the work because I had autism,” he said. He didn’t look up at all.

“Well, autism isn’t an excuse you know,” I said. ” You can do hard things. But you still need to do the work.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” he said.  “I said I didn’t have to.  I didn’t have to show my work. I could see it and do it in my head.”

I sat there and just looked at him.  His eyes never left the iPad, fingers moving and swiping and tapping as he built a cityscape for his Blocksworld cars to drive through.

Not an excuse.

A reason.

Not a negative.  A positive.

Not can’t do. Don’t have to to understand.

Part of his gift.  He could see it in his head. So why do the extra work?

He wasn’t trying to get out of doing the test itself.  Just the showing his work.  And not because he didn’t want to.

Because I didn’t have to.

He was actually advocating for himself.

“I understand now,” I said.  “But you know there will be times when you have to show your work, even when you can do it in your head.  It’s important for other people to see what you see.”

“I know,” he said. ” And the fruit snacks were really good.”

***********

In our world, autism isn’t and won’t be an excuse.  We’re never going to teach him he can’t do something because of how his brain is wired.

But it can be a reason why things are hard. Or, in this case, easy.

Maybe it’s semantics.

This is why we felt it was important that Howie knows and understands his diagnosis. So he could say, “I see this differently because my brain is wired differently.”

A few weeks ago, M. Kelter of Invisible Strings posted this on his Facebook page:

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Without the words to say “because of my autism”, how might this interaction have gone? Alternative scenarios might have involved a long, drawn out stand off, viewed as noncompliance, leaving everyone exhausted, frustrated and miserable.

Leaving my kid feeling like a bad kid.  A failure.  Different without explanation as to how or why. Removed for long periods of time from his general education classroom as things escalated, keeping him away from his peers.

He knows he leaves to take tests in a quiet space so he doesn’t get distracted.  We are working on helping him understand that his aide is there as a “coach” and “interpreter” when he needs help.

But he also needs to know that we will listen to what he is really saying and doing and go beyond the specific words that he is using  in order to make sure that we understand their meaning.  Because here he was, in his way, appropriately advocating for himself.

It’s our job to make sure we hear him when he does.

"The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!"

“The things that make me different are the things that make me ME!”

 

Although you see the world different than me
Sometimes I can touch upon the wonders that you see
All the new colors and pictures you’ve designed
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.

Child of mine, child of mine
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine.” – Child of Mine by Carole King

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Note: As I wrote in part one, I asked Howie if I could share this story (and parts one and three) here.  I told him that I had a blog and that I liked to write about things that happen in our lives on it.  His response?  “Sure.  You can share this with the blogosphere.”  Well, okay then.

Second note:  While this is part two, the story actually happened first – before part one.  But it took me a long time to get the words together for this part of the story.  I am hoping the order makes sense some day.

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It was a Sunday morning a few weeks ago.  Howie and I were headed out.  It’s a work day for me and it’s our Sunday tradition that he comes with me.

He stopped short in the garage and said “Hey!  That’s not right!”

I turned to see what he was looking at.  It was his snow shovel.  On it there’s a picture of a snowman saying “Brrr!” and he’s surrounded by four drawings of snowflakes.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“All the snowflakes on that shovel are exactly the same.  That’s not right.  Every snowflake is different.”

“That’s true,” I said.  I looked over at the shovel.  “I would have never seen that.”

“I notice stuff like that.” he said.

I opened up the car door and helped him buckle his seat belt.  He’s getting faster at doing it himself, but when he’s thinking of other things the motor planning involved with buckling just doesn’t come as easily.

“Yes, you do notice stuff like that,” I said. “You always have.  You have a brain that sees things that others don’t.”

“I know,” he said.  And he named other things he notices.  Details on letters with different fonts.  Things that are just slightly out of place.

I pulled out of the driveway while he was talking.

“Does that make me a mutant?” he asked.

“What? No!”

I looked at his face in the rear view mirror as he looked a little crestfallen. Ah, like the X-Men…we’re in superhero mode again.

“You aren’t the only one in the world with that kind of brain.  But most people don’t.”

Smiles from the back seat.

I realized that this was the time.

I have spent the days since that moment we got Howie’s autism diagnosis in December 2009 wondering how I would talk to Howie about his autism.  I rehearsed it in my head many times.  Bought books.  Read blog posts.  Wanted to make sure I did it “right”.

We stopped at a light.

“So…” I said.  “That ability is a gift.”

“It is?”

“Yes.  You know what I mean by ‘gift’, right?  Not like a birthday party gift but more like a talent.  Something special you have.”

“I know! What is it? What’s it called?”

“It’s called autism.”

“So I have autism?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

I decided to push it a little bit more.

“Hey, you know who else has a gift for seeing stuff like that?”

“Who?” he asked.

“Your friend Brooke.”

“Brooke has autism?”

AND THE BIGGEST SMILE FILLED UP MY REAR VIEW MIRROR.

I left the words hanging there for a moment as I turn into the parking lot for the sensory gym.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Can I have the iPad?”

“Of course.  Once we’re inside.”

And we were done.

**********

A totally easy conversation about something not so easy.

I relayed the conversation to my friend Jess later on that morning, partly because it was through her words and guidance that I was even able to have that conversation that way, but also to thank her and Brooke for giving me the permission to share with Howie.

She texted me back with “You know what makes these conversations so hard? US.”

How true is that?

I wrote “It was just so natural as a progression from him seeing something no one else would ever notice…I figured it was a good moment to call it and not a challenging moment.”

That is where Howie and I left it that morning.   His autism is his gift.  He knows that his brain works differently than others.  He knows that it means he can smell things more intensely than others, that he can create things in his head and make them come to life, that he can interpret the world in a way that is uniquely his.

And he’s knows he’s not alone.  Knowing that he has a friend whose brain works a little differently is so important.  We’ve talked some more about other kids we know who are autistic and each time a smile fills the room.

At some point I know we’ll have to talk about the challenges that autism brings.  Because that is as important as knowing the strengths. Part of understanding his differences is knowing that the sensory issues, the difficult time sitting still, the frustration over school projects and social interactions, and the perseverations – these are not because he’s not smart or incapable.   Actually just the opposite.  Knowing that his brain works differently will help him understand that his aides in school are there not as a crutch or punishment but as a tool for support, just like his sensory tool box.  He needs to know that it’s okay to ask to leave the room when he can’t concentrate, and that it’s okay to ask for help not because he can’t do it but because he needs to frame it in a way that works for his unique brain.

But we aren’t at that point yet.  That conversation will come – it may be next week or next month or next year.  What I know now is that I can’t plan it.  It has to fit the time and place with no script or plan.

Unique to him.  Just like the snowflake that he is.

my favorite holiday present ever. Howie's teacher made a snow globe with his picture inside.  As Howie says "It shows my 'pizzazz'".

my favorite holiday present ever. Howie’s teacher made a snow globe with his picture inside. As Howie says “It shows my ‘pizzazz'”.

Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby, you were born this way

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way” – Born This Way by Lady Gaga