My son, Chase, has big brown eyes that see life differently than others. I see Chase and those eyes every day. I see him trying to figure the world out and after many years of work; I see his autism. When Chase was in preschool, no one could see his autism. They thought it was bad behavior. When Chase was five, he was removed from a summer camp because the staff couldn’t see his autism. They saw Chase being aggressive toward a typical peer. They did not see the bullying that Chase endured prior to the conflict and the fact that his aggression was a defense mechanism.
By the time Chase was in elementary school, we had seen implosions, aversion to loud sounds, running away when things got stressful, and growing social challenges. The only person who actually saw the autism was his second-grade teacher. I remember marching into his parent-teacher conference, determined to have him tested for being gifted. Thank goodness his teacher was brave enough to set me straight and suggest he might have Asperger’s. If she had not said that, my husband and I would still be wondering and watching our son from a distance.
After being diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and anxiety, we had a lot to learn. Chase already stuttered, so we added the other things to the pile and called it alphabet soup. We were advised not to tell people about Chase’s “condition” for fear of how he would be perceived. We realized early on that our silence was hurting Chase.
We moved to a new school district for better services when Chase was eight and it became painfully obvious his new peers did not understand him either. Chase was bullied, excluded and some parents even requested a different classroom for their child, all because they didn’t see his autism. He looked like his peers, but because the behaviors of his autism were vastly different, it scared and confused them. You can’t blame humans for being scared of “different” because we are not born with the skill of understanding “different” or empathy or acceptance. Those skills must be taught.
In the spring of Chase’s fourth-grade year, we approached his school team with the idea of doing a presentation about Chase. For privacy reasons, the school was not allowed to disclose Chase’s autism, but as his parents, we could. At first, the school was hesitant and for good reason. Labeling a child can do one of two things: be really great or very bad for the student. It’s a gamble we were willing to take. What do you have to lose when no one wants to be your son’s friend? My husband and I gave the presentation to the counselor who facilitated it for 75 of Chase’s peers. Following the presentation, the peers who had bullied and excluded Chase started to include, talk and try to understand Chase. Some even asked if they were communicating the correct way with Chase.
Kids are open and accepting in their early years. As they grow older, the window for social acceptance begins to narrow. It touched not only the kids, but the teachers as well. Our counselor noted educators must be willing to set aside everything they have learned and be willing to embrace new ways of teaching students about differences.
Our presentation was not rocket science, but it opened the eyes of many and started the conversation about the invisible nature of autism and being “different”. It became one of the cornerstones of the nonprofit organization my husband and I started two years ago, C.H.A.S.E. (Community Help for Autism Spectrum Everywhere). C.H.A.S.E. works to educate typical people about autism and sensory challenges.
Autism is illusive. It’s invisible much of the time. You can’t see it like crutches or a wheelchair or hearing aids. You can’t catch it or touch it and it NEVER goes away. It can come and go in the flash. Autism is frustrating. Autism is confusing. For years, awareness about autism has grown, but it is time for more education. By teaching people about autism, what it looks like and what it feels like to have it, people with autism have a chance to be accepted, included and feel a sense of belonging.
For more information on C.H.A.S.E., visit www.chasekc.org.
– Amy Wilkinson, Springible Contributor