Monday, March 26, 2012

My Education Education

My dear friend Danny and I were asked to make a couple of in-school presentations to preschoolers and kindergartners. The way we had planned it, these were to be autism-themed presentations, involving slides of the artwork from Ben Has Autism, Ben Is Awesome, and general discussion of diversity and how to be a good friend to a classmate on the spectrum.

The school's principal had a very different understanding.

"What about the puppet?" she demanded, 20 minutes before the students were scheduled to file into the auditorium.

Danny used to work for a company that performed disability-awareness puppet shows in schools. The principal thought this was the show she was getting.

"Oh, we discussed this with Ms. Nice Lady, and I'm sure the kids will get a lot out of this presentation," Danny offered.

No. There was to be a puppet show.

And the puppet was to discuss disabilities.

And the puppet would NOT under any circumstances discuss autism.

Then Ms. Nice Lady started lying through her teeth in a beautiful display of CYA.

"That's what I told them, Principal! I told them it's a nice book but we want to talk about disabilities. And you're NOT going to talk about autism, right?"

As Danny is the professional educator and my area of expertise was to be off the table, I just hung back and let Danny drive. He did not have a puppet, but he pulled a perfect presentation out of the air, and the kids loved it. Between presentations, at the insistence of the principal, he even made a PowerPoint slide show magically appear in a matter of minutes.

Throughout the morning, a question hung in the air: why the insistence that autism not be discussed in this presentation?

Maybe the principal just didn't want to deal with parent conversations that would arise after students reported what they had learned at school. Maybe she thought the subject was over the kids' heads. Maybe she just didn't want to be surprised by a new presentation.

Whatever the reasoning, the impression I got was that she thinks of autism as an entirely different beast than the visible disabilities we ended up discussing - people who are blind, people who use wheelchairs, people who speak in sign language. And it absolutely is. It is an invisible disability, or an atypical brain wiring, depending on one's perspective.

It's pretty easy to talk about what you can see. The average observant preschooler would notice if a person used a wheelchair and would probably point it out to her parents, and the parents could explain quickly that some people can not use their legs and need to use a wheelchair to get around, the conversation would be over, and the family would go about their business.

With an invisible disability, it can be hard to know what you're looking at, so it can be difficult to answer a child's questions. If an average observant preschooler complained to her parents that another child at the playground wasn't talking to her or was rolling around on the ground, most parents would just encourage their child to find someone else to play with. I doubt it would occur to most parents to say something like, "Maybe he's a little shy. How do you think you could play together?" or "Maybe he's on the ground because he's sad. Why don't you ask him to play ball with you?"

I don't think preschoolers are ready to absorb lots of academic information about autism, but I think they can take in the general message from the presentation we (mostly Danny) ended up giving: that while on the outside we're all different, on the inside we're the same. That we all want love and we all like to have fun and make friends, and we're all special and beautiful.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Positive Negatives

See this logo?

You've probably seen this logo thousands of times. The blue and orange letters, the mix of upper-case and lower-case, the way the letters touch each other.

Did you notice there's a big white arrow in it?

Look at the negative space between the E and the X.

I guarantee you that from now on, every time you see this logo, you will not only notice the arrow, but you will feel astonished that you had never noticed it before. It's so obvious once it's pointed out! How could I have missed it?!

Today Ryan shook his head No and nodded his head Yes. And in that moment, Stu noticed for the first time that Ryan has never done either of those things before.

If you had asked him, "Does Ryan ever nod his head to say Yes?" he probably would have answered correctly after giving the matter some thought, but he had never seen that negative space before.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Aidan is Awesome!

A friend of a friend sent a copy of Ben Has Autism, Ben Is Awesome to her autistic 5-year-old son's class to help his neurotypical classmates understand autism. The kids loved the book so much they were inspired to write one of their own.

In "Our Friend Aidan" each student drew a picture and wrote about why they like their classmate Aidan. The boy's mother was brought to tears reading page after page of loving captions:

"We play basketball."

"I like to sit next to him."

"Aidan is good at Math"

Aidan is awesome. 

And his friends know it. 

I'm over the moon that my little book helped make this moment happen.

I wish all of our kids could have a teacher like Aidan's - one who fosters an environment in which every child feels supported and important enough to be the subject of his own book.

To get your own copy of Ben Has Autism, Ben Is Awesome, visit Jason & Nordic.