I don't know how or when the new awareness began. It may have had something to do with my friend Karen's Facebook status updates; they often refer to autistic kids. I believe she teaches them in the public school system. Then there is Lisa's Facebook updates; her daughter is autistic. Also there is the young son of a close friend who "might be kind of spectrumy." A family member married a man with a disabled child; it's not autism, but there are some similarities. Another dear friend shares stories about her autistic grandson. And, too, the girl at church who we've watched grow into a teenager.
So autism had moved off the back burner of my consciousness to something I was newly more aware of. It was almost as if I were getting ready for something.
When I was offered the job at the church, it was casually mentioned that during the week, the building was used by a small, private school. For autistic children. A population I knew virtually nothing about but was somehow newly tuned in to.
There are fourteen kids ranging from about 7 to about 16, I would guess. Two of them are girls. One of the girls is so impacted by her autism that she cannot spend more than five minutes or so in a classroom with other children. Sheis about eight and is taught in a room of her own, across the hall from my office. Her teachers, I am convinced, are saints. All day I hear them instructing Gina and offering positive reinforcement when she does well. She knows her own full name, the names of her family members and is working on her address. She knows numbers up to thirteen and some concepts such as "big" and "small." She knows colors. For doing her work and maintaining "quiet hands and quiet mouth," she receives stickers on a board, and when the board is full, she earns time to play with her iPad or play dough or a special treat from the kitchen. Some days she does very, very well. "Nice job, Gina!" I'll hear from across the hall.
But there are other days. The past week has been filled with extended periods of howling and shrieking and flailing about. When this begins, the teacher removes things from the little classroom until all that remains is the cushiony mats and the beanbag chair. The teacher must be protected from Gina's throwing things, the environment must be protected, and Gina herself must be protected.
Even on her good days, when walking from her classroom to the occupational therapy room or to the kitchen or even to the bathroom, one of her teachers holds her hand. All of the time. And the teacher wears a sweatshirt and sometimes shin guards on her arms because when at her worst, Gina has been known to bite.
Gina is my near neighbor and the person I see (and hear) the most of during my workday. I feel happy when I hear her identifying "13" or "green." I cringe when she has a tantrum, some of which have lasted up to an hour. We have some very limited conversations, Gina and I. With prompting from her teacher, on her good days, she will respond in kind when I say, "Good morning." On these occasions, I'm filled with delight even though deep down, I suspect she doesn't differentiate me really from a piece of furniture.
This little girl is very cute, and her mother dresses her beautifully. To take a first look at her, you would never know how complicated Gina is. When she is screaming and flailing, my instinct would be to put my arms around her and hold her tight. Which would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. For so many reasons.
I've learned a little bit about autism in the past couple of months. But there is a lot more ahead.