Dear 8th Grade Students at Central Dauphin Middle School,

 

I always wanted to share the wonders of foreign language, travel and culture with my students, which I did for 34 years.  I now find myself at a different stage of teaching, not one that I invited into my life, but one that enables me to share, once again.  Today I get just about 40 minutes of your time to help you understand the number 1 childhood disorder.  It starts with a capital A, ironically, and that is where I begin today.

 

I never expected to have a child with autism.  I wasn't even sure what autism was until I saw "Rainman" with Dustin Hoffman in the 1980s.  When I looked at my son Greg, I noticed different characteristics than Hoffman portrayed in his famous movie about a grown-up math whiz who could add long columns of numbers, but who could not add up his change after making a purchase.  My son could do 100 piece jigsaw puzzles by age 1 and sing entire songs, but he could not converse with me.  He knew the way to Sesame Place, but did not know to come inside when it started to rain.  There are so many more examples of odd contradictions.  Naturally, I never thought Greg was autistic because he didn't act like Rainman.  Look for unusual characteristics in your own children someday.  Call an expert if you see them.  (See the list I will share with you.) If your pediatrician is not a source of information, seek out others who might be able to help with the diagnosis.  Advice #1.

 

The obvious question you might pose at the end of this class period is, "Mrs. Squaresky, if you could have a do over, would you hope for a normal child?"  Phew.  I was afraid you would ask me this question.  In another universe, maybe we get a do over, but not here.  We can wish for normal.  That's as far as wishing leads us.  

 

And, yes, I would still take Greg just as he is.  His challenges shaped our lives and made us better people.  On the other hand, I'm not saying I would not pray for normal.  

 

What I want you to know is that all children are special.  Even parents of normal children make mistakes. Believe me when I say that my husband and I made many raising both our boys.  We jump into parenthood with written guidebooks, but little to no experience, and that is an open door to ERROR with a capital E.  We get one chance to do right by our children.  If we screw up, we must be there to pick up the pieces and formulate a new plan.  Listen to your children.  Spend time with them.  Talk to them.  That's a start.

 

We chose inclusion for Greg because he seemed to learn best by watching others.  Given another chance, we would still choose inclusion. Greg showed us that he could handle the challenges of the regular education classroom with the support of his teachers.  Greg made friends.  He learned to read and do math on the calculator, and most importantly, he learned what constitutes acceptable behavior out in the real world.  

 

We did not have Internet in the 1980s.  Look up "autism" and educate yourself.  Make informed decisions with a bit of gut instinct added on.  Don't beat yourself up if you make a mistake.  Instead learn from it.  Make lists, mental or written, and choose the best solution at the time.  Advice #2.

 

I have long lists of advice.  However, I have learned over my many years of teaching not to be preachy.  Students tune out.  Instead, look at my family's challenges and learn.  See Greg's art. Read his story. Recognize that "special" does not mean that a person is incapable of great successes and joys. 

 

Welcome to my world for the next 40 minutes. 

 Special people in our lives: Greg and Caralie, Greg's childhood friend, meet years later to reminisce.... 

Special people in our lives: Greg and Caralie, Greg's childhood friend, meet years later to reminisce.... 

Central Dauphin School District's program of inclusion brought Greg wonderful friendships.  Caralie Foltz Roisum may live half way across the country now, but she found time during her Christmas break to see Greg.  Part of our journey with autism has been about relationships with other special people.