I have the best job in the world, hands down! A lot of times, when I tell people I work as a special education teacher with children who have autism, their reaction is to tell me that I must be a special person, be particularly patient, or have a big heart. I want to answer back, “No, not at all. It is my students who have shown me how to really be present in a moment with another person and how to recognize the love and face of Christ in the person looking back at you.”
There is a story that tries to describe what it is like to have a child with special needs, to encourage parents to be thankful for the little things. It’s called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley. The story compares the experience of having a child with special needs to the experience of planning a trip to Paris, and you are looking forward to seeing the Eiffel tower and the Louvre. But when you finally board the plane and begin your trip, the plane is diverted to Holland. The author points out that though your expectations must change, you can still be grateful for the windmills and tulips. While the message is a good one, there are a lot of people, including myself, who feel this comparison is bit too Pollyanna-esque. Sometimes the experience of caring for a child with special needs is closer to that of the plane landing in war-torn Somalia. It is much harder to give thanks in these circumstances.
As their teacher, I often struggle with this same problem. There are those days and those students who I don’t know how to help. When the tantrums just won’t stop and shoes are thrown across the room. When a non-verbal child bites or hits because he can’t tell me to leave him alone, that he needs a break. On those days, I leave work haggard and longing for a desk job. Some people say, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” but, on those days, I’m pretty sure it’s possible. The best response I’ve heard to this feeling was from a father of a child with autism. He said, “We do get more than we can handle, and it’s at these moments we remember how much we need God, how much we need to fall on our knees and beg Him for help.”
While the autistic spectrum includes an umbrella of traits that present themselves in many different ways, there is one common trait that affects almost all those people diagnosed with autism: “a qualitative impairment in social interaction,” to use the psychology jargon. People on the spectrum don’t relate to others in the same way most people do. The social rules we pick up on through observation and experience don’t imprint themselves on people with autism in the same way. But it is this same “social impairment” that allows you to see the face of Christ staring back at you in these children.
This impairment in social interaction obviously affects the teacher/student relationship as well. Most young children are already socially conditioned to try to please a teacher. Often, student use their charms to ingratiate themselves with you. Children with autism often don’t have that conditioning. When I’m building a relationship with a child with autism I have to leave social niceties behind. Until you really do this for the first time you don’t realize how much we use those niceties to cover who we really are when we interact with people. A child with autism only truly interacts with me when I let go of the social role of teacher I might try to present. In return, I get the most amazing gift of all, an interaction with another person in its purest form. Since children on the spectrum are not hampered by social convention, and therefore are not embarrassed when they act in a manner outside this convention, they are free to be perfectly themselves.
The best example of this was during my first year of teaching. I was right out of college, and, because I’d had some experience working as a student volunteer at a school for children with autism in college, I was given the job of teacher in the class of the lowest functioning children in the school. One of my students was Al. He had a reputation as being a tough, physically aggressive kid, but was one of my favorite students right from the beginning. He is the one who shaped me into the (hopefully!) competent teacher I am today. Al was practically nonverbal, but very smart. He had a lot of common sense and was great at solving problems. The difficulty with being smart and non-verbal is that it is very frustrating to be unable to communicate your feelings. Overall, Al was great to work with, but we were trying really hard to help him communicate, and that meant a lot of pushing. So when he needed a break, when we had done too much and I wasn’t picking up on his signals, Al would bite, hit, kick, spit – anything to let me know he’d had enough.
As intense as Al’s displays of aggression were, his displays of love were every bit as intense. Every so often in my classroom we would have dance parties. We’d put some music on and dance around just to get the kids moving and interacting with us and each other. One day we turned the radio to a salsa station and, when he heard the music, Al started to weep. He started to say, “Mom” over and over, and couldn’t be comforted until we turned off the music. When I called home to let his mom know what had happened, she laughed. “He was just missing his momma,” she said. “Al and I dance to salsa music together a lot. It’s our special thing.”
Sometime later Al and I were waiting in line for the bathroom with the rest of the class when he turned to face me and started stepping on my feet. I assumed he was getting aggressive. “Oh no,” I thought, “here we go again.” I was just about to tell him to stop when he reached up and put his arms around my neck, looked into my eyes and started to sway. That’s when I realized he was dancing with me, reaching out to interact and, without any words, say, “I’m so happy to be here with you right now, in this moment.” It was the first of many moments where no words were needed, no typical social interaction occurred, just pure emotion and joy, the face of Christ reflected in this little boy.
Moments like these have allowed me to have a better understanding of my relationship with God. Experiences like these have shown me how to simply feel love and joy without any hindrance. And for that I will be forever humbled and thankful.