The Denver Autism Wheel

Kids these days…

Posted on: September 16, 2010

One of my darkest fears as the mom of a child with autism has been “what’s going to happen to him in middle school and high school? Please, please, don’t let him be one of those kids who gets beaten up or locked in his own locker all the time!” I remember being a kid and how mean kids could be around each other if somebody was different. I remember kids being singled out for their weight, height, religion, ethnicity. I remember the mean words, the fist fights. When I was in elementary school, the class thug punched the class weirdo at recess because the weirdo’s favorite football team beat the thug’s favorite football team. The weirdo ended up with broken glasses and a bloody nose. The thug experienced an enforced break from school for a couple of days.

I’ve read memoirs of adults with autism who were picked on, teased and persecuted because they were unable to defend themselves, because they couldn’t look the bully in the eye, because they made unexpected noises in class or flapped their arms or got scared of loud noises. They describe a haze of cruelty that laced grades 6-12, the dread they felt walking to and from school, the sucking fear of not knowing where the next punch or kick or taunt would come from or why…it keeps me up at night sometimes.

And then something happens, and I realize that my kids are growing up in a different world. Now, I don’t know if this happens because the boys’ elementary school is particularly attuned to kids with special needs, because we live in a suburb, something like that. But I don’t think that’s the reason (at least not entirely) because it happens outside school, too. Luke’s football team has kids of every stripe: big and small, blended families and adoptions, different ethnicities and religions, coordinated and not-so-much, stars and supporting cast. And everybody plays the game. Nobody gets singled out for being one thing or another.

Now, I will say that I’ve noticed some alarming trends in adults in the media (another reason to turn off the TV) who suddenly seem to notice again what makes one person different from another based on race or income. I would hope we’ve come far enough and are mature enough that we could continue to model openness and inclusion to our kids because it seems to be serving them better. Time will tell, I guess.

But I have yet to see Chris singled out as being “the weird kid” and the target of scorn and derision because of it. His classmates both at school and gymnastics are inviting and helpful. Nobody skirts him like his fuse is lit. Nobody avoids him as though he were contagious. There is usually a peer in the vicinity who will take him by the hand and explain what’s going on if he doesn’t get it. It surprised me, and it made me think about my own prejudices for thinking about it. How much of Chris’ “problem” with autism is really me projecting my own fears onto a situation I really don’t understand? How much of my worry is unfounded because his context as a child is markedly different from what mine was, growing up XX years ago?

So I asked Luke about it one afternoon on our way home from practice.

“What do you notice about other kids?”

“Well, Zac runs really fast, so I want to run faster than him.”

“OK, so you’re competitive. Anything else? Do you think about kids who are different from you?”

…dead silence… “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are a lot of kids in your class who act the same. They play at recess, like to run and throw the ball. But some kids play alone. Do your classmates say things about those kids?”

…dead silence… “Like what? ‘Hey, you’re playing alone.’ That’s kind of dumb.”

OK. True enough. “Do people talk about Chris around you?”

“Sometimes they ask me if he makes those noises and doesn’t talk at home.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them yah, he does. It’s one of his autism-y things.”

“Do they say anything else?”

“Nah, they know him.” And that was that. Kids at school know Chris does autism-y things. Period. It was a simple statement of fact with no judgment attached. Wow. Cool.

Chris is a fourth grader this year. He has 2 years until middle school. I still worry about him because I don’t know what these kids around him will be like when their hormones kick in. Will they turn into the kids I knew when I was in middle school? Will they jockey for popularity and friends, and persecute the less social to make themselves look more appealing, like kids did when I was growing up? I can’t imagine they wouldn’t. But then again, they’re not the same kids. A generation of learning to get along and being inclusive and interestested in what makes us unique has inserted itself between me and being a tween. Please, please, kids, continue to get it. Please continue to be compassionate and kind. Please keep your beautiful hearts open.

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