Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to elementary school students, a group of first graders and a group of third graders, about autism. As they walked single file into the gym and sat on the brightly colored dots on the floor, I hoped I could help them understand some of their classmates a little better.
“Good morning, kids! I’m here to talk to you about autism today. My son, Cowboy, has autism. How many of you have heard of autism?”
I was astounded by how many hands went up. Over half of them.
My mind flashed back to 2001, when Cowboy was becoming more aggressive, and snide remarks from adults in public resulted in my giving them a quick Autism 101 lesson. Most people had never heard of autism. My “he has autism” explanation for his behavior was sometimes met with “Oh, he is artistic?”
Yes, he acts that way because he is artistic, I would think sarcastically. He melts down in stores when his senses are overloaded because he’s a modern-day DaVinci. That’s the origin of “temperamental artists.”
They would look at me, bewildered.
Not wanting to go into a long dissertation, I was forced to defer to the most overused explanation on the planet. “Did you see Rain Man?”
“Oh…okay.” Their eyes would widen as they continued, “Is he good with numbers?” Translation: Are you taking him to Vegas to help you win big? “No, he’s not a savant. Everyone with autism is different.”
The group of children in front of me reflected the fact that “autism” had become an everyday word.
“Raise your hand if you know someone who has autism.”
I expected one or two hands.
The same number of hands went up. It saddened me, and a girl on the front row said, “My cousin has autism.” It’s in their families, it’s in their school, it’s throughout our nation. When Cowboy was two years old, about 1 in every 10,000 people had autism; now it’s 1 in 45. The school I visited organizes an autism walk for the students every year, so they already had a little knowledge about it.
I explained that autism is a medical disorder that affects how kids communicate and things such as how they learn to play with toys, to play with each other, and to take turns. Of course, I realize some adults need to learn to take turns, as evidenced by the presidential debates this year, but it may be more difficult to teach to those with autism. Or maybe not.
I told them that, although some with autism can speak, Cowboy has trouble sounding out his words and uses American Sign Language to communicate. The kids enjoyed learning a few signs. “He also types what he wants to say into his iPad or iPhone. So, if you see these kids using their phones and iPads during classes and wonder why you can’t, you’ll know they are using them to communicate.” I was trying to stave off any jealousy in the world of electronics.
As I glanced around the group, I saw a sea of activity. Kids were tapping their hands together, wrapping their arms around each other like a pretzel, etc. – your typical elementary-school assembly.
“Kids with autism may do things that seem strange to you. I’m not picking on you when I point to you, but I want to show you what I mean.” As I glanced from child to child, they suddenly became statues, fearful I’d call on them. Thankfully, a few of them started fidgeting again, just in time for me to make my point visually. “You’re playing with your arms, and you’re moving your head from side to side,” I said, pointing to two different students. “Some of us strum our fingers (I strummed on the wall), tap a foot, or bite our nails (the kids laughed – I suppose they were told 50 times a day to get their fingers out of their mouths). We all do something that helps us feel calmer; people with autism may flap their hands, rock back and forth, or make unusual noises with their voices.” I demonstrated by imitating a vocal noise Cowboy made for years.
“You don’t need to be afraid of different,” I told the kids, “and we don’t need to call anyone weird.” I thought back to a sermon I’d heard decades ago, given by my friend John, and borrowed his words. “Weird means different, and we’re all different.”
They nodded profusely when I shared that Cowboy’s favorite restaurant is Casa Ole, and they loudly cheered went I said he loves ice cream, the great equalizer. Please let them see the common ground they share with their peers who have autism.
As I began the question and answer segment for each group, I thought I’d hear, “Where do you live? Do you have other kids? Are we going to lunch now?”
At least 20 hands went up to ask the first question, in both assemblies. Their questions were similar in spite of their age differences.
“How old are you when you get autism? Are people born with it?”
Right out of the chute, complicated questions. I stuck with what I know best – Cowboy. “Many develop autism before they are 2 years old, like Cowboy did. There is no exact age.”
“My brother has autism. He’s right over there,” a blonde-haired girl on the front row said.
“Yes, I met your brother. I heard it’s his birthday. Happy birthday, George.” He looked up at me as his sister added, “We’re twins.” I had to laugh; she needed equal attention for the big occasion. “Happy birthday to you!” Does she ever feel guilty that she does not have autism and George does? Does it make her sad?
The most asked question from both groups was, “Is there a cure for autism?”
“A lot of people are working to answer that.”
“Can a doctor help people with autism?”
“Yes, we do that with Cowboy, and he is better. He used to get mad all the time; now he is happy every day. And he’s never mean.” That got their attention. I thought back to my school days; there was a lot of meanness going on.
“How do you get autism?”
I’ve made presentations to churches, support groups, and at the Texas State Conference on Autism multiple times, but those bright, perceptive kids asked the toughest questions. Since it wasn’t a forum for me to share my theories or teach biochemistry, I opted to tread lightly. “That’s the question everyone is trying to answer."
At that point, I was hoping the next question would be, “What’s your favorite color?”
“Do people with autism get the flu shot?”
“Can you get autism when you’re older?”
“Do people with autism have germs?”
Wow. Where is this going? I thought. Suddenly, I saw a common thread in several questions and noticed the looks on many faces; they were worried.
“You don’t have to be afraid of people with autism. You can’t catch autism from them.”
“It’s not like a cold that you can get when someone sneezes or coughs on you,” the P. E. coach added.
I felt the group relax.
“Is it rude to ask a friend if he has autism?”
I wasn’t sure. “Maybe it would be better to ask him why he does certain things differently.”
“Can you run when you have autism? Do people with autism like sports?” I told them about Cowboy’s love for playing soccer, basketball, baseball, and disc golf.
“Are they in our classes?” was answered quite abruptly by the birthday girl whose twin had autism. “Yes, that’s my brother over there!” According to one of the teachers present, at least 13 in the first-grade group are on the autism spectrum.
“Do you have autism forever?”
I felt myself gasp as I put my hand over my heart and said, “Many times, yes, it is forever.” The six-year-old girl who asked the question ran her finger from the corner of her eye down her cheek, to indicate a tear falling. “Yes, me too,” was my response as we shared a moment that transcended words. Don’t cry; hold it together until you get to the car. Don’t send these kids home traumatized by “the lady who came to school and cried in front of us.” I wanted to run to that compassionate soul and hold her, thanking her for her caring. I wanted to hug all of them for the concern in their eyes and the kind tone of their voices.
“But sometimes they get better,” I added. “Some get much better, and you can no longer tell they have autism. I met a man like that.”
I noticed that one of the students with autism looked inquisitive. As I got down on my knees to look him in the eyes, he asked, “Can I meet your son and play with him after school?” It was refreshing. I told him I would try to bring Cowboy to his school next time I spoke.
“What are the first words your son ever said?”
“Mama, Dada, and is it, as in “what is it?”” And then he lost his language when he was about 18 months old. That was a lifetime ago.
“I have time for one more question,” I said as I glanced down to the front row and pointed to a little boy with big brown eyes.
“How can I be a friend to someone with autism?” Perhaps the most important question of the morning, a morning that was an exercise in controlling my emotions.
“That’s such a great question. You can invite him to your house or go to his house. He might want to watch a movie with you, or play a video game, or listen to music, or any of the things you like to do. Just remember, if it’s hard for him to look you right in the eyes, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you. Some people with autism have a hard time looking people in the eyes.”
As the last group of kids filed out of the gym, I was struck by how much they had taught me. That slice of the future generation has an abundance of empathy and a willingness to learn about others’ differences. They made up for all the years of harsh comments, judgmental glares, and insensitivity from more adults than I care to remember.
They gave me hope. I feel more secure about Cowboy’s future. It is a gift I will treasure into eternity.