Talking About Autism

“I am different, not less.”
Temple Grandin

Ian's Walk: a Story About Autism  by Laurie Lears

Ian’s Walk: a Story About Autism by Laurie Lears

It was after gym. We stood in the hallway, taking a drink break. Faces hot and sweaty after an amazing workout. A sweet young man walked past the group with his assistant. I could visibly see the looks on some of my young students’ faces changing. Some curious. Some staring. And … some openly asking. “What’s wrong with him?” “Why is he making those sounds?” “What is he doing?”

Their faces took me back, into the long ago past, when, as a young teen I FELT those same stares and unspoken questions continually with my brother. You see, my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was twelve. Back then, surgery was MUCH different, and the radiation treatments MUCH more invasive. He lost ALL of his hair and his shunt was visible to anyone who looked. Most people did. Some secretly, others much more obviously. His toupee, an attempt to help him feel “normal” and “blend in”, actually served to make him stand out more. Like the radiation treatments, toupee creation was not as advanced as it is today.

Who KNEW this tiny bundle would teach my family SO many life lessons?

Who KNEW this tiny bundle would teach my family SO many life lessons?

The stares made me feel uncomfortable. As a child, myself, I didn’t understand. I can’t even BEGIN to imagine how it made my beautiful brother feel, although now, with some age, experience and understanding, I see that many people are uncomfortable with “different”. Children are curious. MOST don’t mean to be hurtful. They are learning about the world. Some, on the other hand, are maybe scared and they react with actions that ARE hurtful.

The day I watched my brother, surrounded by a bunch of “classmates” in his Junior High School hallway, trying to catch the toupee they had ripped off his head and were tossing around in a mock game of “Pig in the Middle”, will FOREVER be etched in my memory. It STILL makes me sick to my stomach. Luckily, the majority of us are JUST curious.

Michael, recovering after his THIRD surgery. We were lucky to have had him as long as we did. He taught me SO much about perseverance and spirit.

Michael, recovering after his THIRD surgery. We were lucky to have had him as long as we did. He taught me SO much about perseverance, spirit and LIVING.

My life with my brother is a HUGE part of who I am today. Maybe THAT’S why I walk through life believing that knowledge IS power. Understanding is KEY. I think that Temple Grandin said it best when she said, “I am different, not less.”

And so, rather than sweeping it under the carpet and choosing to ignore the curious looks and the openly asked questions, my students and I talked. And read. And talked. And … asked MORE questions. This time, though, the questions were even more insightful … an attempt to FURTHER deepen their own seven and eight year old understandings.

Looking After Louis by Lesley Ely

Looking After Louis by Lesley Ely

Our Wonder Wall has begun to grow. Some students talked about their OWN personal experiences with cousins. We now have seven or eight AMAZING questions that will require our further investigation. If they ASK, we WILL talk. We’ll talk even if they DON’T ask! Francis Bacon is right: “Knowledge IS Power.” Understanding takes us BEYOND tolerance and into ACCEPTANCE.

We are ALL unique. We are ALL different. Some of us are good in Math. Some are not. Some find spelling easy. Some do not. Some are shy. Some are not. Some wear glasses. Others do not. Some flap their hands when they are excited or overwhelmed. Others do not. Some have words to express themselves. Others make sounds because they do not have the words. Some like broccoli … MANY do not.

The ONE thing we DO have in common is that we ALL need to feel loved. To be understood. To feel accepted. After all … we ARE all “different”. NOT more. NOT less. Just different. And … that’s … OKAY.

“It is time for (us) to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” 

― Maya Angelou