I am a strong believer in knowledge being one of the best tools to fight anything — and I became determined to create knowledge and awareness about Devin’s autism. I wanted people to accept him for what he was, not reject him for something that he was not! And that would require understanding!
With Family and Friends
I started with family members. They, too, had been concerned about some of the behaviors that Devin had displayed. They were also concerned about how these behaviors were going to affect our original household members.
We would try to prepare Devin as much as possible for any events with friends or family. This involved telling him what was going to happen, where it was going to happen and approximately how long it would last.
Once the event started (even if it was a simple visit at someone’s house), we would try to ensure that the other people there knew that Devin had autism and that they were aware of some of his most likely behaviors. Sometimes things went smoothly and no issues came up — but it is much easier to explain Devin’s actions to others when it is somewhat quiet rather than when he is in the middle of a meltdown! And people’s reactions to Devin’s behaviors tended to be more favorable if they had been warned ahead of time!
Before Devin started first grade, I called and talked to the principal to ask a favor — could I possibly find out ahead of time who Devin’s teacher was going to be so that I could take him to meet the teacher and see the classroom before the first day of classes? My hope was that this would help him transition to his new teacher and classroom better if everything had been seen ahead of time.
A time was arranged and we met with his teacher a few days before school started that August. I had prepared a brief booklet about Devin, with just two or three lines on each page. One page had a photo of Devin with some basic information. The following pages explained what autism was, how it affected Devin, some of Devin’s strange behavior, and some of his favorite things. This book was given to the teacher to keep in their classroom — that way it was readily available for anyone who would be working with Devin (substitute teachers, assistants, student teachers) as well.
That first meeting was a hit with both Devin and his teacher! Devin had an opportunity to walk around his classroom, see where his assigned seat was and meet the teacher. And the teacher had the opportunity to meet Devin while he was with someone he was comfortable with and without the presence of 24 other students all excited about the first day of school.
As we were leaving the meeting, the teacher smiled at me and thanked me for doing this for both of them. Then she said, “I have to admit I have been a little bit nervous about having him in my class. I have never had a student with autism before. I am afraid I will do something wrong.” I smiled at her and said. “Welcome to the club! I had never had a child with autism before either. And there is no right or wrong! All you can do is try something and if it does not work, find something else to try!” I think that set the tone for the entire school year!
Since that first meeting worked so well, we did a similar meeting each year that Devin was in elementary school. And each year, the teachers thanked me for doing it!
My other mission was to try to help the other students in Devin’s class understand why Devin acted the way that he did and be accepting of him. But how to make a classroom of first graders understand something that most adults did not understand? I started looking for a way to do it!
In my search, I read something that compared autism to a short in an electrical circuit. Because of the short, the brain was not receiving the information as it should and that affected the way that information was received and processed. But what could I use as a visual? I thought about it for awhile and came up with an electrical alarm clock with a digital display! And then made another phone call to the principal!
When I entered the classroom to talk to Devin’s fellow students, I not only was facing the students and their teacher! In addition, the back of the room held the special education resource room staff members for that school, the counselor, the speech therapist and the school district’s special education director. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous!
I introduced myself as Devin’s mother and then I held up the alarm clock that was not plugged in. “Can anyone tell me what time it is by looking at this clock and nothing else?” I asked the class. Quickly, I was greeted with shouts that I needed to plug it in. Once I plugged it in, I asked again if the could tell what time it was. “No!” they shouted. “You need to set the numbers right!” So I quickly set the numbers to the correct time. Then I explained to the students that when everything is right, the clock functions like most of them and does what it is supposed to do.
Then I unplugged the clock again and plugged it in again so that the numbers were flashing. “Is the clock getting all of the information so that it can tell you the time now?” I asked the group. Their response was a resounding “No!” So then I explained that Devin’s brain works like the clock before it is set to the correct time — it does not have all of the information that it needs in order to function like it should. Then I let the students and staff ask questions about how autism affects Devin.
Afterwards, it was time for recess and as the class headed out the door I heard several students invite Devin to come play with them. The staff members who had seen my demonstration expressed their appreciation as they had also been struggling with how to explain autism to students this young. And the best comment came from the special education director: “I wish all parents would be so willing and open about their child so that the other children could try to understand!”
I repeated that demonstration for 4 more years — each year that Devin was in elementary school. Some of the students had heard it before and some heard it for the first time, but each time it was met with approval. When we would run into Devin’s fellow students out in public, they would rush over so they could greet him and introduce him to their parents or grandparents. And I was told numerous times about how someone’s child came home and explained autism to them!
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