April is Autism Awareness Month (also known as Autism Acceptance Month). Change for Kids emphasizes Social-Emotional programs for our schools that are designed to help create an environment in which all children can learn at high levels. Every student in every school deserves a quality education – no matter what their learning style is – and every student can learn and achieve.
Our CFK School Managers often interact with students who have a variety of neurodiverse issues that affect the ways they learn and socialize. Here’s one story of academic triumph, as reported by CFK School Manager Charlotte Bush.
Mr. Funky Slow Jams: Dispatches from the Spectrum
It was March of his third grade year, and the little guy still wasn’t talking. He could communicate through writing and drawing just fine, but – to the dismay of both me and his parents – he was still nonverbal. His teachers from past years had told me how “stubborn” he was, and exchanged increasingly implausible theories about why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak. He was a sweet, gifted kid. I should know – I was his teacher that year.
I was new to teaching, still hopelessly idealistic, and stumbled onto a helpful tool for him completely by accident. I was sharpening pencils before the school day started, singing to myself. “Gotta sharpen all the pencils” I sang under my breath to an approximation of a tune, as my silent student sat at his desk, eating his cafeteria breakfast. I thought I heard something from his direction, but chalked it up to the growl of the pencil sharpener. As it continued, I stopped my chores and listened: my silent little friend was singing back to me. “Sharpen allllll the pencils” he crooned, for all the world sounding like a nine-year-old Al Green impersonator. My jaw hit the floor, and it continued to descend throughout the day, as my previously silent student sang his answers, sang that he needed to go to the bathroom, and sang goodbye to me and a few of his friends at the end of the day. It was as though we’d turned on a tap, and the words were gushing out of him, albeit always to the same generic funky slow jam. He wasn’t just verbal, he was dulcet. He was Billboard Top 40 – Mr. Funky Slow Jams. And not only that, his self-stimulation (or “stimming”) behaviors that he did when stressed or uncomfortable, like rocking, biting his clothes, and pulling his hair were nowhere to be seen. He seemed to be so much happier, as well as more expressive, because he was able to sing.
So why am I telling you about him? My tuneful buddy had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a toddler, and difficulty communicating is pretty characteristic of a wide swath of the Autism Spectrum (though of course, every individual case is different.) Mr. Funky Slow Jams is in middle school now, and is very proud of himself. Sometimes, he told me the last time I saw him, he even speaks. He still mostly sings, but his tunes are evolving as he’s exposed to different music. He sang about how much he loved doo-wop, and how his choir friends harmonized with him sometimes, and I must admit, I got a little misty.
You might be wondering as you read this, “is he bullied?” The answer is yes. It’s a cruel world. But that shouldn’t be a reason for him to stop singing. My funky little friend has more resilience on his hardest days than most adults. Instead, his creative solution can serve as a metaphor for inclusive education at its best. Letting him sing instead of speak isn’t “cheating.” It’s the goal of differentiated instruction; leveling the playing field so that all kids can participate. As a former teacher, I know that differentiated instruction is a need as basic to be able to function in school as wearing glasses is to correct vision. A kid who wears glasses isn’t getting an unfair advantage. They’re just getting what they need to see the same materials as their classmates.
As public awareness of ASDs grows, it’s sad that the understanding of ASDs hasn’t increased to meet it. The pop-cultural stereotypes of people with ASD’s – the Sheldons, the Rain Mans, the Sherlocks – none of them prepare you for working with kids like Mr. Funky Slow Jams. Many otherwise well-meaning organizations take a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting people living with ASDs, or even view ASDs as something to be “cured,” or as something that ruins lives. Due to misinformation, some parents are exposing their kids unnecessarily to measles and other diseases that were nearly eradicated through vaccines, rather than have their child risk “catching autism.” That mindset of fear shows just how little is still widely known about this complex series of conditions. I’d like sit down and compassionately tell any parent facing an ASD diagnosis that no, their child won’t become like Sheldon. No, their child isn’t “broken.” No, this isn’t because of something they, the parent did to “make them that way.” And no, it can’t be “cured,” and it doesn’t need to be. Neurodiversity is as normal as a student needing glasses, and the sooner our culture embraces this truth, the better off we’ll all be.
This April, here are some ways you can make a difference to support the autistic community:
- When someone on the spectrum talks about their experience, listen. You may want to reassure them, or try to help, but sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is listen. Make a space for those on the spectrum to talk about what they’re dealing with.
- Advocate for inclusive education whenever possible.
- Fight stereotypes whenever you can, including those around vaccines.
- Donate to Autism advocacy groups, but please, do the research first. Make sure that the groups you support have people with autism in positions of power, on the board, or in management.
- Keep an open mind when working with kids; solutions and supports can come from anywhere.
When I last saw Mr. Funky Slow Jams, he was not only surviving, but thriving, or “kicking butt in Middle School,” as he sang it. Leveling the playing field for a kid who needs it can be as simple as letting them sing, so this April, let’s make sure all voices are heard!