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.