My first grade son is autistic. My fourth grader is in class with an autistic boy. When she tells me stories about the boy, (I’ll call him Drew), I listen to the words she says but I see in my mind the future for my son. I know every autistic child is different. I will give room for my son to be whatever he will be, better or worse, and love him just the same. But what lies ahead is such a mystery with so many possibilities.
The story my daughter told yesterday about Drew did not make me think of my son’s future as much as I thought of his past. There is a consistent trait among those on the autism spectrum which is to take things literally. Common misuse of words is accepted by most of us, but flies under the radar of ASD kids. As an added complication, when autistic kids speak literally with their learned use of words, they are often misunderstood because other kids learn the common misuse of those words or a variety of uses not yet explained to the autistic kid.
So, before I tell you the story, I have to say that my response to it was to say, “awww” in a way that meant I thought it was both cute (because it reminded me of my son), and sad for Drew. My daughter said, “Why did you say, ‘awww’ about what he did?” Because she, and probably all of her other classmates, did not understand the inner workings of Drew’s mind which caused this event take place. They thought he had been bad.
In music class, the fourth graders are learning to play the recorder by doing what is called, Recorder Karate. If they successfully play a certain song, they get a “belt”, which is a colored string to tie around the base of their recorder. My daughter is on red, which means she will next try for brown, and then her black belt. Drew was on his brown belt and trying for his black belt. (I was very impressed that Drew was doing so well playing an instrument and it made me hopeful for my own son.)
Well, Drew did not play the song well enough to earn his black belt. The music teacher told him he would have to try again the following week. Drew was upset and began to cry, but it was not a meltdown. He was just sad.
After they walked back to the classroom, another classmate noticed Drew was crying. The classmate said, “You played that song really well, Drew. You should have gotten a black belt.”
Drew got a big smile on his face and jumped up and down, clapping.”Yay!” He said, and ran out of the room (breaking a rule), and all the way to the other side of the school to the music room.
My fifth grader interjects here to say, “That was Drew? We all heard someone running down the hall. My teacher opened the door but whoever it was had already gone out of sight.”
My fourth grader laughed, “Yes, that was Drew. He went into the music room and grabbed a whole handful of black belts and tried to yank them off the hook. When the teacher told him he couldn’t have one, he started screaming and had to be taken to the resource room for the rest of the day.”
I felt so bad for Drew because I knew he misunderstood and thought “You should have” meant he literally should have. It’s a phrase we avoid with my son unless we are telling him a rule. Because to him, what is the difference between these things:
- You should walk in a straight line.
- You should keep your hands to yourself.
- You should raise your hand before you speak.
- You should have gotten a black belt.
Because Drew was instantly happy and not mad by the statement, “You should have gotten your black belt,” he obviously assumed it was a rule he didn’t know about. He thought it was an absolute fact that he should get it. If he had understood it the way the classmate intended, Drew might have gotten upset or resentful, but would have likely not gone to the music room and attempted to physically get one.
So why did he grab them all? Fine motor planning is difficult.
Here is where I see the tragedy in this story:
Not one person had all the details. I’m not sure if any teacher knows that the classmate told Drew he should have gotten a black belt. Without that key piece of the puzzle, how can they assess what was happening? How would they know that Drew was doing what he thought he “should do”? To the teachers, Drew was breaking many rules and it’s human nature to believe he was angry about not getting a black belt. And maybe Drew was a little angry about that, but it wasn’t his motivator.
The classmates were in an opposite position. They all knew that Drew was told he should have gotten a black belt and they thought it was funny that those words had sparked Drew to do what he did. But they didn’t know why that happened. To them, it was unusual. An unusual kid did a rebellious thing, he broke the rules in a way a lot of kids envy, and when it was all over, he was still just an unusual kid. Everyone laugh, now.
I see it in my own son that he knows he doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids. Lots of kids will call out to him to say hello, especially kids in the older grades. He has potential to be a popular kid, one everyone knows and mostly everyone loves. But… who will understand him?
It is no wonder many autistic kids, as well as adults, are closest to their primary caregiver. Being understood and not needing to explain with words is heaven. Being misunderstood and unable to find the right words to explain is hell. I’m not sure when it was that Drew finally understood for himself what had happened yesterday. It couldn’t have been easy. I just hope he was able to find a moment of peace to build up his strength before going back into what must feel like an alien world. All that ordinary looking stuff autistics do at school is hard fought to accomplish. They honestly deserve many black belts for more than just Recorder Karate.