Thursday, September 27, 2012


Many of our friends and family members are educators, and many care intensely about what is taught in our schools. I myself am a teacher. So I feel a bit disloyal and even heretical saying this: as far as my own kids go, I don’t care, like, even at all about curriculum.

Actually, I had always planned to homeschool my children, but circumstances conspired to bring me one child who doesn’t necessarily want but desperately needs all the socializing he can get and one who would probably go postal within three consecutive days spent with Mama and without major social activity. For Z, adult acolytes will do in a pinch, but peer adulation and goose-stepped errand-running is preferred; for E, the biggest school lessons are ones he doesn’t necessarily learn at home: that while everybody is different, most people judge others for being different; that we can’t spend all our time reading; that people change their minds and plans change; how to "read" unfamiliar situations effectively…

                                    Figure I – Usefulness of Curriculum Excellence Pie Chart

As this scientific pie chart demonstrates, most learners benefit enormously from a thoughtful, organized curriculum.  I contend that my children, along with certain others such as perhaps some gifted students, or some with significant delays or learning differences, do not. It’s not that curriculum excellence always impinges on these students or is a negative thing, it just does not matter as it would for other students. My learners gain most from teachers of exceptional character and eagle eyes. So I don’t particularly care if they spend a day chasing caterpillars in the meadow or making 3-D models of the Green Mountains.

In my ideal world, time spent on curriculum development (not to mention test-prep – another post!) might well be used to consider and research how to teach contentment or generosity or ways to encourage curiosity.

However, in this reality, teachers don’t have that kind of freedom, regardless of whether they would willingly toe the Full Spectrum line. So I care that -- insofar as possible -- my kids have shining morning faces and don’t get dragged down by awful beastly kids or dreadful, serving-time-until-retirement teachers. 

G spends most of his time at home reading and learning thereby. At school, this direct absorption of knowledge is somewhat compromised by wide-ranging sensory and emotional overload.* In other words, much of his actual intellectual progress probably occurs at home.

Z isn’t too interested in books…yet. But she could efficiently extract all the necessary knowledge for an astronomical level of success from two potatoes, a rotten log and a maraca.

So, if not book-larnin’ and curricula, what can teachers offer such children?

What I hope for from teachers is:
1.     that they be kind, and
2.     that they model empathy,
3.     good judgment, and
4.     integrity; and
5.     hold an atmosphere where bullying is simply and absolutely not a possibility either for potential perpetrators OR victims.


1.     Kindness: I hope it is not too much to hope that the logic behind requesting kindness of elementary school teachers is a no-brainer.
2.     Empathy: Some non-autistic people SAY that people with autism lack empathy. This has not been my experience at all. G is the most softhearted person I know. I will say it is sometimes a stretch for him to understand what other people are feeling when his senses and neurons are feeling assaulted, but once G knows what's up he cares and understands and acts on those feelings. That is, he empathizes, often too much (so that his feelings become painful and he finds it hard to function...).  Z sometimes lacks empathy because she is in survival mode.  Teachers with healthy instincts for and expressions of this emotion offer lessons in positive, pro-social empathy that students can carry throughout their entire lives.
3.     Good judgment: discernment, moderation, discipline and common sense are elusive for G, optional for Z; as much as possible, they need to see them in action.
4.     Integrity: I want my children to see their most esteemed role models as people who follow their consciences and follow through on their word. In a classroom setting, this could be as plain as setting clear rules and consequences. When G kicked his cat because his cat knocked over his beloved fish’s tank and killed the fish, he felt guilty. I told him, “That was a natural thing to do – your cat will forgive you and you’ll do better next time.” When he told his teacher – a former Buddhist monk – about this incident, his teacher (in the context of an appropriate lesson for the whole classroom, in which many students apparently thought kicking a cat was funny) vehemently scolded him. I like that his teacher did this: he wasn’t trying to make himself popular, nor was he taking the easy, lame approach; he was speaking the truth as he knew it.
5.     No Bullying: some kids, like G, are more vulnerable to being bullied or, like Z, to being bullies. Both kinds lose in a chaotic classroom. When teachers hold the classroom space as a safe one, everyone wins. This fall, I finally had an opportunity to enlist Z’s strengths in a positive fashion. A little boy from her preschool had enrolled in kindergarten and right off the bat was getting bullied on the playground by some fifth grade boys. Z hasn’t got a bit of “victim” on and I knew that by her patronage alone, this sweet little boy would be safe. As well, her kindest instincts would be called into play in caring for this wee friend. Now I just hope those fifth graders are ok.

I spend my advocacy, that tacit, somewhat-limited leeway every parent has, on the above qualities. As long as teachers are decent people and in charge of the classroom we’re good. We have done very well so far – after all, why do people choose to become teachers? (Hint: it’s not the lucrative salary.)  I figure the clan can always learn “the new math,” but if their hearts are hurting that’s a MUCH bigger issue. 

Full Spectrum Mama

* Here is an example. At the end of fourth grade, G’s class had an end-of-school open house to share the students’ Native American projects.  There were So! Many! people in that classroom, and so many sights, bright lights and sounds to take in, that I began to get a migraine. Consequently, at this event, I could barely see people and when I could they made me nervous as I couldn’t even fathom or read what they were thinking and feeling in that context.  I had a compelling urge to flee.

Adding to that urge was the fact that G was wandering around aimlessly, talking loudly and constantly to anyone nearby without even looking at his putative listener to see if he was being heard.

Having cornered them in a relatively quiet spot, I asked his teachers, “Is he always like this in the classroom?”

“Pretty much,” they told me, with love in their voices, “Yes.”

With all due respect to G’s WONDERFUL teachers, HOW, then, can he LEARN?  I mean, I know he learns some stuff but there must be so much that is lost in the process!

 On our walk home that day I shared that being in that classroom was very challenging for me.

“Is it challenging for you?” I wondered, casually.


“Is that why you talk a lot sometimes, and in a loud voice?”


 Having been so profoundly overloaded, I was daunted to realize that this is what G and all students and their teachers deal with every day. I am sure many – most -- kids are able to navigate such environments quite well, but G is not one of them.

Barring private school or a “separate-but-‘equal’” classroom for those with sensory and other neurological and/or emotional differences, what can one do to mitigate such overwhelming environments, with so many people, visual and aural and other stimuli, social and academic expectations to be met…??? How can students with sensory integration issues be effectively integrated in the classroom? If help is needed in the classroom, how can we de-stigmatize that help?


Monday, September 10, 2012

"Mom, try to find me!"

First, the corny bit: I walked into the ocean late this summer in a foul mood and, seeing how vast and impervious she was, had the tremendously novel idea of dropping my burdens into her salty depths. Then, crying and exhausted and overwhelmed and a little relieved, I sent out a prayer/question, “How do I live a life of peace?” The answer washed over me right away: “The way to live a life of peace is to live a life of peace.” I probably read this in a Dalai Lama book or some such but still it actually sank in at that moment.

The answer was simple, maybe obvious, but, for me, to truly feel it was revelatory. As an erstwhile yoga student and teacher, I have often noticed how many times we humans can hear the same thing but never really listen. One day, if we are lucky, we actually hear a teaching – “Listen to your breath,“ or “Relax your diaphragm or “Let go”…”  – and it’s, um, deep.

So of course I then thought to ask ANOTHER question, because I am greedy like that. “Okay,” I conceded, “That’s a great idea, but just how exactly do I ride the waves of my amazing yet zany life?”

“Ride the waves,” came her reply.

Now it’s good old back to school time and the waves are in full force. G hearing me say “It’s almost time to go,” and slipping his sneakers on the wrong, sock-less feet and running out the door in his underwear and pajama shirt, Z making her teacher wait an extra ten minutes at the end of the day because she is “helping” her friend pack her backpack and making sure she, Z, is in total control.

At the end of each day, I try to sort of gather together the turbulences – good and less-so -- of the day and settle the clan into a smooth, peaceful sleep.

First comes Z’s bedtime routine. Since she has excellent executive function, she can be given ten steps at once and she will follow them -- efficiently and in order. She might potentially add two or three nefarious and unwanted (by parent, teacher, etc.) steps as well if left to her own devices, but she can keep lots and lots and lots of instructions and information in order in her mind. She needs no prompting to follow an impeccable bedtime routine in which all the right parts get cleaned, voided, brushed and rendered ship-shape.

Yet putting Z to bed is sometimes an unhappy time, a time of struggle. Most days, worrisome and/or upsetting behaviors have occurred and I wonder if I should process them with her at bedtime.  As I am tucking Z in, I may remind her of certain things I am trying to teach her. Just as many social rules that seem obvious to neurotypical people do not seem naturally clear or obvious to people with autism, Z, as a small person with an attachment disorder, needs help navigating the ethical universe most people try their best to share.

I might tell her, “You need to follow the same rules as other students, like when it is time to leave the classroom everybody leaves together,” or “During school it is a time to listen and respect your teacher.” Variations on the phrase, “Telling the truth sometimes seems harder than lying but in the long run it’s a better thing to do – and you will get in less trouble, too!” are frequent contenders for this nighttime slot.

I always try to remember to add, “Tomorrow will be a better day,” especially on the really rocky days. After all, hope is so important! As defeated as I may feel, I also try to sing her a song, sometimes a very short song, and give her a kiss. Then I escape before she can get me with “puny arm!” (If she puts her [puny] arm around me I pretend to fall asleep.)

I know rationally that the primary caregiver is the one with whom the child with an attachment disorder displays the most reactivity and testing. Some nights, though, I desperately wish we could just snuggle, that my snuggling wouldn’t feel like it was transcending another rough day, that it would just feel simple.

You know, like living a life of peace. *

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh says, in Gift from the Sea, “Don't wish me happiness --
I don't expect to be happy all the time...It's gotten beyond that somehow.
Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.” With this daughter of mine, how I pray for courage and strength and – above all - a sense of humor.

Then it is bedtime for G. G does best being told one to three (max!) steps at a time and is very literal. His bedtime routine requires some oversight to make sure he enacts the most basic aspects – brushing teeth, using the toilet…Order of direction is important, too: he will not think twice about taking his fluoride pill before brushing his teeth, for example, if that’s the order in which they are mentioned.

After he gets ready for bed, as I am walking into his room, G often runs in, leaps into his bed, pulls the covers over his head and shouts, “Mom, try to find me!”

”Mom, try to find me”??? I am sitting on the edge of your bed, from whence your voice is clearly issuing!

I hate when he does this. It makes me catastrophize and project that he will never, ever be able to be all right on his own.

But on this particular night of which I write, the night of the leaving-the-house-in-underwear day, I – as usual -- laugh and tickle him and cuddle up to tell his nightly story:

Once upon a time, there was a brave and noble knight named Sir G-ahad, and he was known far, far across the land for saving unicorns, and seals, and anything else in need, and for being a little bit different, and for being brave and kind. [All of his stories start in this way.**]

One day, as Sir G-ahad was sitting in the court at Camelot, a beautiful Princess came running in and cried, “Sir G-ahad, Sir G-ahad, a terrible dragon has stolen my unicorn!!!”

Then she looked at Sir G-ahad and started laughing because Sir G-ahad was in his underwear and a T-shirt and the shirt was tucked into his underwear. AND he was wearing his noble knight boots on the wrong feet and without stockings! The Princess was laughing so hard she lost her faith in the brave and kind Sir G-ahad and left to find another champion for her cause. [G looked very sad as I told this part of the story.]

Well, that Princess searched far and wide and no knight was able to help her, though many tried and failed, because no knight was quite as brave and noble and kind as Sir G-ahad. Finally she returned to Camelot, and found Sir G-ahad at the round table wearing a more normal outfit.

“I am sorry,” the Princess told Sir G-ahad. “I think I have learned my lesson that I should never have judged you because you were a little bit different.”

“You were right in a way too,” admitted Sir G-ahad. “A knight should pay at least some attention to his noble attire.”

That said, Sir G-ahad set off on his noble knight steed, Corny the unicorn, found the terrible dragon, drew his mighty sword and – lickety-split -- the dragon ran crying home to his Mama.

And everyone said, “Thank you, Sir G-ahad. You saved a unicorn…again.”

I sing him a little song and eventually start to get up. G grabs me and almost knocks me out with a headbutt from his giant, rock-hard head.

“Oh, G,” I groan. “Can you please try to be more aware of where my body is?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

Fair enough.

There’s a lot I don’t know too. Our Full Spectrum runs from the gifts and challenges of aspergers to the wounds of -- and efforts to heal -- reactive attachment disorder. Before either of my children had a label, I spent even more time feeling tumbled in this ocean of parenthood. A lot of parenting advice besides
1.     Love your children, and
2.     Be consistent
is useless in my situation. At least now I know why a lot of the standard stuff doesn’t work  -- and a few things that do, thanks to the insights that came with those labels. Now I also know “ride the waves” and “live a life of peace,” which feel like they can be applied to just about any situation if I can remember to do so amidst the unruliness of daily life.

Waves, try to find me! I’ll be hiding under this here Living a Life of Peace blanket,

Full Spectrum Mama

* Joke.
** Z gets the same format: her chivalrous deeds are done under the banner of Sir Shawty.