Recently I spoke to the fourth graders at SB’s school about autism, and it went better than I could have imagined! The kids were interested and engaged throughout my presentation and asked thoughtful questions. I think it was a very positive experience, and I hope they were left with a better understanding of SB and of anyone they meet in the future who is different. I really wish I could have written about it right after it happened so that it would still be fresh in my mind, but alas, life gets hectic and all of the sudden it’s three weeks later! But I finally have a few minutes to myself while traveling with the Air Force Band, so I’m going to try to capture it for you now.
First, let me say that the people at this elementary school are wonderful! The fourth grade team, the guidance counselor, and the administration were all very accommodating and let me come in and say exactly what I wanted to say. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive environment.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if SB should be there for the presentation or not. I talked to him about it at home, of course, and he said he was OK with me doing it. Both our ABA provider and the school guidance counselor felt that it would be best if he was not there, so we decided that he would go visit his former second grade teacher as a helper while I talked to the rest of the fourth grade students. Since that teacher is currently AB’s second grade teacher as well, AB was a little bit miffed when he was told that his brother was coming to visit his classroom. “What?!? Why is HE coming HERE?” I guess he didn’t want his brother invading his world at school!
When I initially approached SB’s classroom teacher, I asked if I could speak to all three fourth grade classes and not just his class. I wanted to do this because, as I’ve mentioned before, SB is an extremely social guy. I think he knows EVERYBODY in the school! He certainly knows all of the fourth graders, and they all know him. They mix up the fourth grade students for math and also for physical education and music, so most of the fourth grade students are with him at some point in the week. I really felt like it would be beneficial to talk to all of them. That is, until the morning of the presentation when it hit me that I would be addressing almost EIGHTY KIDS!!! What was I thinking? That’s a lot of curious little eyes staring at me! I have to admit, I was pretty nervous that morning, wondering if I was doing the right thing and if I was going to make things worse for SB rather than better.
The entire concept of my presentation was borrowed from a blog post by a woman named Mary McLaughlin who has a blog called “MOM – Not Otherwise Specified.” She spoke to her son’s 4th grade class a few years ago and wrote about it here: A hair-dryer kid in a toaster-brained world. You should read her post. Really. It’s bloody brilliant. (Did I just say “bloody brilliant?” Can you tell we’ve been watching a lot of Harry Potter movies at my house?) She bases her explanation of autism on a single analogy, where she asks the students to imagine that most people in our world have brains that work like a toaster. Therefore, making toast in our world is the most important thing to be able to do. Then she asks the students to imagine that the brain of an autistic person is like a hair dryer. And although hair dryers are useful and work perfectly well, it’s pretty hard to make toast with a hair dryer. I just love this analogy, because it emphasizes that a person with autism has a brain that works DIFFERENTLY. It’s not better or worse. Just different.
Here are the PowerPoint slides that I showed to the students, and a little summary of what I discussed.
After introducing myself, I started with this question: What is a disability? I read the second slide to them, and then I asked them to give me examples of disabilities AND what a person with that disability needs to do differently than they do. Naming disabilities was easy, but the second part took a little prompting on my part. For example, one student said, “Being blind!” “Yes!” I said. “Blindness is a disability. Can a person who is blind read books?” “NO!!!” came the chorus of kids in front of me. “Of COURSE they can!” I replied. “They can read books that are written in braille. They feel the words rather than seeing them. So, yes, they CAN read. They just do it differently than you do.” After a few examples like this, I think they understood. Then I told them that I wanted to talk to them today about a specific disability called autism, and that the reason I wanted to talk about autism today is because SB has autism, and I wanted all of them to understand autism, and SB, a little bit better. At this point, the room became silent and all of the beady eyes staring at me got really big. I’m fairly certain that they all knew that SB was different, but I bet most of them didn’t have a name for it or understand why. I’m so glad they seemed to want to know more! I also took a line from Mary’s post and told the kids at this point how much SB loves them, how much he talks about all of them, and how much they mean to him. Because it’s true.
I thought that the most important thing before I really got going was to assure the students that people who have autism are born with it, that you cannot catch autism from someone else, and that if you don’t have autism now, at age 9 or 10, you never will. I wanted to just put those worries to rest right away!
At this point I used Mary’s explanation almost verbatim, explaining that the brain is a machine and that it controls everything that we do. I’ll just summarize this part here, because you’ve already read this description in Mary’s post. (You haven’t read that yet? Well, then scroll back up to the link and read that right now!) I asked the kids to imagine that their brain was actually a toaster, and we discussed what our pretend world would look like if everyone’s brain was a toaster. The most important thing to be able to do in this world would be to make toast, of course. Then I had them imagine that SB’s brain was a hair dryer, and tried to emphasize to them how difficult it would be to have a hair dryer brain in this imaginary world we had created where everyone else is a toaster.
This is where I talked about the things that our society thinks are important, because most of us are good at these things. But these things just so happen, because of autism, to be the very things that SB’s hair dryer brain has a really hard time doing.
Then I mentioned that there are some things that hair dryer brains can do better than toaster brains, such as dry wet hair! And also, there are some things that SB’s brain is really good at doing. These are things that his brain can do a lot better than most of our toaster brains can do. I asked them to come up with some things that SB is really good at doing.
“Multiplication!” Math – yes, I expected this answer.
“Playing the recorder!” Music – yes, I expected this answer.
“Remembering stuff!” Memory – yes, I expected this answer, too.
“He’s a really, really good friend!” And this was followed with lots of nodding and affirming “Mm-hmms” and “yeahs.”
I almost lost my entire train of thought here. Really – I just about cried. This is what stands out to them? That SB is a good friend? After all the worrying I’ve done in the 8 years since his diagnosis that he wouldn’t be able to make friends? This was by far my favorite moment of the entire morning. I think my heart grew 3 sizes right there.
After that, we talked about some of the things that make SB just like any other kid, like how he loves to play video games and likes to eat macaroni and cheese. Then I told the kids that I wanted to focus on a few ways that SB is different from them to help them understand autism.
When I asked the kids if they had ever seen SB panic, they all nodded and there were lots of “Mmm-hmms” throughout the room. So I talked about how the brain controls the senses, and that SB’s hair dryer brain senses work a little differently than their toaster brain senses. I had them list some of the things that they might hear in a regular classroom, such as the teacher’s voice, a loud class in another room, lights humming, a lawnmower outside, etc., and how their brains know how to filter out the sounds that are not important to focus on the sounds that are important. People with autism can’t always do that.
I played this short video for the kids, stopping it after Carly’s Dad says, “How can I help?” I think this video, developed by Carly Fleischmann, is really well done, and helps portray what it might feel like to be in a crowded place and have autism.
Then I explained to the kids about how your senses send out “DANGER” warnings to your body when you are in danger, like if someone jumps out at you and scares you. These danger warnings cause your heart rate to go up, your breathing to get faster, and you probably have an impulse to run away. Sometimes, I explained, SB’s brain sends out these “DANGER” warnings to his body when he gets stressed, but is not actually in danger. This is what causes him to panic in situations that don’t seem like a big deal to others.
To explain this one, I told them about how Carly Fleischmann (from the earlier video) describes how her body feels like a can of soda pop that someone has shaken up. And she feels like she can’t help it – she just needs to let out those bubbles before she explodes. I think that’s why SB, and a lot of people with autism, move in ways that sometimes look unusual to us toaster brained people. When SB gets really excited or happy, he just can’t help but jump up and down and sometimes even flap his arms. He’s just opening the can of soda pop to let out those bubbles before they explode. I think this also helps explain why he fidgets a lot with his hands. He can’t help it – he just feels like he needs to move his hands all of the time because of that soda pop feeling.
When I asked the kids if they had seen this behavior in SB, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of their heads shaking “no.” It seems this issue might not be as bad as I thought. I still talked a little bit about how being flexible is hard for people with hair dryer brains, particularly if the rules change or are different than they expect.
I borrowed this answer from Mary’s post as well. I told the kids that SB will always have autism, but he won’t always be exactly the same way he is now – just like they won’t always be exactly the same way they are now. And that as he grows up, SB will keep finding new and better ways to make toast with his hair dryer.
At this point, I talked about how there are lots of adults with autism who are doing important things in the world, and I introduced them to Temple Grandin. I explained to the kids how Temple Grandin designs buildings for cows to live in, and that her buildings were different (and better!) than anything anyone had ever seen before. (I tried not to go into too much detail about how said cows are going to be slaughtered and eaten for future hamburgers!) (And yes, that’s me up there with Temple Grandin! Photo with a celebrity! Yay!)
By showing the kids some of Temple Grandin’s work, I tried to emphasize to them that the world needs people who are different, because people who are different might be able to make our world better using their different brains to solve problems in ways the rest of us wouldn’t have thought of.
I read this slide verbatim, and I hope that it stuck. Although I think that 99% of the kids at this school are awesome to SB, he does tell me about being teased sometimes. And I know that he will get teased throughout his life – I’ve known this since the day he was diagnosed. But it still breaks my heart when he tells me about it. Also, I know that every kid gets teased. I got teased when I was a kid. That doesn’t make it suck any less. Hopefully, the message on this slide will make a kid stop and think before teasing in the future.
My last slide was a picture of SB and one of his best buddies at a baseball game together last summer, and I ended the prepared part of my presentation by saying, “There is nothing more than SB likes than to hang out with his friends. Just like you!” Then I took some questions from the kids, which they were allowed to raise their hand and ask or write down on note cards. Here are some of the best ones:
“Where is SB now? Why isn’t he here?” This was the very first question, and it made me smile. I like that he was missed! I explained that we thought they would be less nervous about asking questions if he wasn’t in the room.
“Can he die from it?” Wow! I was happy to put this student at ease and explain that SB will definitely not die of autism.
“What happens when people with autism get angry?” Well, the same thing that happens who YOU get angry, I answered! He can get upset, but he will calm down eventually.
“How do people get autism when they are born?” Oh, kid. I wish I knew. I really wish I knew. I explained that many smart doctors and scientists are working on the answer to that one, but that nobody knows just yet.
“In lunch, SB plays a game with his hands, then when I try to play, he panics.” OK, this isn’t really a question, but I understand what the kid is talking about. Sometimes SB creates games in his head that he plays out by himself, and the casual observer would have absolutely no idea what he’s doing. I also know that when he plays like this, 1) He really doesn’t want anyone else to play, because only he knows exactly how the game goes, and 2) You cannot stop these games without causing a big tantrum. You just have to let him play it out. So, even though I understood what the kid wanted to know, this one stumped me. I didn’t really have an explanation that I could give on the spot. Thankfully, our fabulous ABA provider was also in the room with me, and she reminded the students about SB’s really good memory. She explained that when SB is playing like this, he is probably reenacting a movie or video game in his head, and because his memory is so good, he is probably seeing it exactly as it happened when he saw it last, as though it was playing on a screen right there in his head. And he doesn’t want to deviate from what he’s seeing, so if you come up and try to join in, you probably aren’t going to do it exactly the way he’s seeing it. She suggested that if they want to join in, they should ask him what they should do.
“Does AB have autism, too?”
Oh, Lord! I was not prepared for that one. I should have been. This isn’t that big of a school, and it shouldn’t have surprised me that someone would ask about SB’s younger brother. But it did surprise me. And honestly, I did not feel comfortable “outing” AB just yet. His second grade peers probably don’t think he’s really different. They just think he’s shy. However, you can’t spend 5 minutes with SB without knowing that he’s different, which is why I wanted to have this talk with the fourth graders in the first place. After a few uncomfortable seconds of me going “ummm” and “uhhhh,” SB’s teacher thankfully declared, “We’re not going to answer that today. Next question?” And we moved on.
Many of the note cards weren’t actually questions, but were declarations of what a good friend he is, or things like “SB=Awesome!” It makes me so happy to have these! At the end of the presentation, I felt really good about how it had gone. The teacher, the guidance counselor, and our ABA provider were all very complimentary. However, I was still a little nervous after I left the school and went back to work. How were things going to go for SB when he went back to class? Were the kids going to treat him differently? Was anyone going to facetiously call him “hair dryer brain?” Or were they going to be extra nice to him now?
I felt a little unsettled all afternoon, and was anxious to pick SB up after school to talk about it with him. “How was your day?” I asked him tentatively. “Awful!” he exclaimed. “My class lost recess for being too chatty!” I tried to probe a little more. “I’m sorry you lost your recess. Did your friends say anything about me coming to talk to them?” “Yeah,” he said. “They told me you were there. I have SOOO much homework! Spelling and math and social studies…” I kept trying to get something out of him, but the fact that I had been there to talk with his peers didn’t seem to matter to him at all. I don’t know why, but I was expecting some sort of big, watershed moment after my presentation. I was expecting his peers to be extra nice or extra mean or something. But for SB, the day was business as usual. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that now I know just how many of his peers think “he’s a really, really good friend.” Maybe I got something a lot more valuable out of this day then they did.