I am sorry. I am a good human being – a good teacher, I think. I listen, I learn, I strive to be better. I know it is a great responsibility to shape young minds, young opinions. I thought I knew what it means to teach a pupil with autism. But experience has given me something knowledge never could and I am sorry; now I begin to understand.
Before I was the mother to my son – my son who I now know is autistic – I thought you might struggle to imagine as vividly as others. I see now that isn’t so; your minds can be quick and bright and colourful – like exotic birds, beautiful but unusual. Sometimes you just struggle to imagine things that are governed by the expectations, the minds, of others.
Before, I knew that some of you might find relationships difficult. I thought your emotions ran differently to mine. I feel the warmth of my son’s arms around me and I know that isn’t true. You feel love just the same, just as deeply – you just struggle to express it in the ways others think you should.
I knew that people were wrong to put any behaviour down to poor parenting, poor control. But I did not know what it means to be so overwhelmed by the chaotic world around you that you cease to be able to function in it –
I turn the hand-dryer on without thinking – wild eyes, racing heart, minutes spent holding my baby boy, whispering reassurance, waiting for him to calm. That stark revelation is my new understanding.
– I am forced to wonder, how painful might the noise, the bustle, the fluorescent lights of the classroom, be for you?
I knew you might be constrained by the literal, confused in a world where the rules of language seem to be made, only to be broken. I watch my son’s face crumple with distress when I tell him he will have to ‘stay on the stairs forever’ if he doesn’t come quickly and I understand how utterly unfair it is that the complex nuances of language come easily to others.
I knew that you could thrive on routine and small changes might provoke big reactions. But I did not understand the true feelings behind those responses. The unexpected can be frightening – we can all appreciate that –
My son stares at the parking spaces on his play table from the opposite side. He knows his numbers well. They are always the same. But today, the 6 has become a 9, because, from his view, it is upside down.
“Mummy! Mummy please help. Make it change! It has to go back, it has to go back! It’s wrong. Please, please mummy help!”
I run. There is the moment of dead panic. I think he must have hurt himself – something must be badly wrong. But no – after a few minutes of watching him try to show me, wailing, I finally understand. “It has to be near the 10”, he sobs, “Please make it near the 10!”
I take him to the other side, where the numbers are correct, proper, where they always should be. He calms.
– I am sorry. I did not know the terror that the unexpected could bring. For some of you, the small things can be big. An unexpected object, an unexpected route, finding a 9 where a 6 should be – these can be as terrifying as finding a lion in your living room.
I am sorry that I did not fully understand all of this – when a girl begged to leave the class, when I saw a pupil screaming at another member of staff, when I made you wear your school jumper because those were the rules and we all have to abide by them.
But more, more than I am sorry for my lack of understanding, I am sorry for not fully realising: it is not the differences that sometimes divide us that define you, but the similarities that unite us all. We are human beings with human hearts. We are anxious and afraid and we fear, we love, we cry, inside or out. All of us. I love my son like a billion mothers love a billion sons, everywhere – like your mothers love you.
I am grateful that I now understand. Not just so that I may be a better teacher for you all, but so that I may be a better teacher, a better human being for everyone I know, teach, love. Who knows what silent battles others fight? Who knows which actions are provoked by fear or doubt or desperation?
We are all different, not less- the thousands of sons and daughters that have filled my classrooms, girls and boys, black and white, autistic and neurotypical. And my mother’s heart makes this promise to all your mothers’ hearts, and to you: I will try to understand. I will try to be better, I will try to treat you all, every pupil, as different, not less.
To learn more about our experiences with autism, you might like the post ‘Autism? more like bad parenting.’
*I believe that the autism training given in schools is simply inadequate. As a teacher, I have received autism training, from many different schools, every single year since I qualified, thirteen years ago. It has not been successful in helping me to understand the needs of autistic pupils. I would like to share this post with parents, teachers and those in positions of authority within education, so that we might spread the word and improve the situation together.
The autism training I have received has been focused firmly on ‘managing’ the perceived ‘symptoms’ of autism. I have gained little or no understanding of the issues and feelings that might motivate challenging behaviour from autistic pupils. In thirteen years, no one has explained to me what a sensory meltdown actually feels like, or even what might be happening if autistic students display behaviour consistent with sensory overload. It is only now that I realise just how woefully unprepared I have been. It is not good enough and as parents, educators – human beings – we cannot let it stand.*
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