I have wanted to share the following story for a long time, but when I think about it I tend to get angry all over again. Today, instead of pushing it to the back of my mind once more, I have decided it's time to share. After all, April is autism awareness month. After reading this post, I believe that those of you with children on the spectrum will understand why reliving this has been hard for me, and those of you who know little about autism will hopefully gain some valuable insight.
I worked as a middle school para-professional in the special education department from 1996 until the year 2000. I really enjoyed my job. Our department had a great team (the best in the school district and I'm not just tooting my own horn) and inclusion was of the utmost importance to us. Our students thrived to the point that we almost hated to send them on to high school for fear that everything we had helped them achieve would be thrown by the wayside.
The respect I felt for Mrs. M, the special education teacher that I worked with, changed however the day that I walked into the classroom and found her and Conner, one of our non-verbal autistic students, in the room.
Conner was completely stressed out. His lunch tray was on the teachers desk, untouched and Mrs. M informed me that she wasn't allowing him to eat his lunch until he opened the bathroom door by himself. She told me she knew he could do it. She'd seen him open the door on his own before, therefore, she refused to give in and open it for him.
Conner was told he could eat his lunch after he opened the bathroom door by himself. This, alone, made me very upset, but when I looked down and saw that Conner's Pull-Up was so wet that it had ripped and fallen to the floor, I came unglued! The following thoughts raced around in my mind: Wasn't it enough that Conner realized he needed to go to the bathroom and went to the door? Was it really that big of a deal if he didn't turn the damn knob all the way? He was reaching out for help. So what? I didn't believe for one minute that Conner was refusing to turn the door knob just to be spiteful. Somewhere, inside his brain, he had a valid reason; we just didn't know what it was! In my eyes, his behavior certainly was not such to withhold his lunch from him.
In the sake of my rising blood pressure, I will skip a few details and let you know that I ended up in the principal's office with Mrs. M. She justified her actions by saying that she had discussed the situation with Conner's foster mother and "It wasn't like he couldn't go to the bathroom. He was wearing a Pull-Up." The principal listened graciously and told me he understood why I was upset, but he also had total and complete faith in Mrs. M. (Of course he did! Even if he didn't, he wouldn't admit it in front of me. That's what "good" principals do; they back up their faculty.) Mrs. M and I ended up agreeing to disagree, and I quit at the end of the school year.
Mrs. M retired a couple of years later. I often wonder if she ever looks back and regrets the way she handled that situation. More importantly, I wonder how many children/adults with autism we, as a society, unintentionally hurt because we just don't understand what is going on in their heads.
As for me, I still work for the school district, just not in the special education department. I have the best of both worlds. Each weekday I get to work with sweet little Kindergarten children for a few hours, then come home and be the best mom ever to my autistic son Cody. Now I'm tooting my own horn!