A Captive Audience

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This year, I am teaching three subjects – math, religion, and science.  I actually love teaching math.  When I was in fifth grade, I made A’s in math.  It came pretty easily to me and I find it easy to teach.  Teaching about my faith is also pretty easy – it’s been a part of my life for 42 years.  I don’t like science.  I never liked it in school, and I don’t love teaching it now.  I think every teacher finds one subject that is their Achilles’ heel, and science is it for me.

But today was different.

My class is learning about body systems.  Today’s topic was the nervous system and last night’s homework was for the students to research a disorder or disease that affects it.  They were given a commercially made handout that listed cerebral palsy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s’ disease, and a few others.  We did an activity where the kids shared their information with one another, and then I happened upon a video on one of the websites I use with my kiddos.  It was about autism.

Now, a few years back, I taught first grade at my school, so this happens to be round 2 for me with half of these fifth graders this year.  I seem to remember possibly mentioning Michael’s “special challenges” to them when they were all 6 and 7, but I doubt it really made any sense to them at the time.

But today was different.

Frankly, the little animated video I found on Brainpop (the website I love to use for science) was kind of lame.  It was very minimal and I didn’t feel like it gave the kids any information at all.  However, the second I mentioned that my son was afflicted with the disorder, something changed.  Hands started shooting up.  They asked question after question about Michael.  Stories were being told about neighbors, cousins, and friends who had autism.  It was like something actually became real to these kids.  They suddenly really, truly heard me.   They talked about kids they knew who couldn’t talk about anything except dinosaurs; children they knew from camp who wore headphones all day and never wanted to play; kids in their neighborhood who flapped their hands all the time.   It was like it all made sense now.  They giggled when I shared stories about Michael and his obsession with ceiling fans.  They excitedly suggested to me to take him to Home Depot and Lowe’s (two places he loves).   When they asked if Michael plays any sports, I shared with them the special program in which he participates in running and soccer.  When I told them that typical kids are volunteers in this program, some of them asked me if they were old enough to participate and be a buddy.   We actually ran out of time for some of the things that I had planned this afternoon, but I just couldn’t bring myself to end this particular “science lesson”.

Michael has a fan club.  I hope he gets to meet these kids one day soon.  They really touched my heart today.

My cup runneth over

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Oldest & Only (but not quite)

So those of you who are affiliated at all with the school where I work will recognize the title of my post right away.  The school where I work sends home what we call “Thursday Folders” once a week.  The office gives us stacks of flyers and notices with little sticky notes attached to the top.  The sticky note either says “All” or “O/O”; “All” means to distribute one to every child, and “O/O” means “Oldest and Only”, so those papers only to go the oldest child in a particular family or the only child the family has in the school (it’s basically a way to save paper).  Christopher is on the latter of the list and it seems so strange as he is neither an oldest child, nor an only child.  But, truly, in this family, he definitely knows both of those roles very well.

I often look at Christopher and think about the position he has in our family.  When I was growing up, I had 3 younger siblings. We used to sit down on the weekends with my parents and play board games.  When my father brought home our first video game, Intellivision, we fought over who was going to get the next turn (and God forbid you smile or laugh when someone lost a “life” on Astrosmash – that warranted an immediate hit of the reset button and then you had to wait even longer).  When my parents took all of us on vacation, they had to always get two adjoining rooms – kids in one room, adults in the other – and of course, the four kids in the room alone were not going to be getting too much sleep.  It was too much fun for the four of us to be acting silly and staying up as late as possible.  I’m sure all of this sounds quite typical of families with more than one child (even if it’s not four kids).  But in our family, the sibling dynamic is very, VERY different.

Our boys are 18 months apart.  Yes, we planned it that way.  We wanted our kids to be close; to be friends; to be in the same schools at the same time; to be able to share a room.  Well, we eventually got that last one.  The others, not quite the way we  imagined.  

The boys are close, but in a different way.  Christopher has really assumed the role of the big brother.  And I think that’s sometimes confusing for him because he’s the younger brother chronologically.  But Christopher has something that many other kids don’t have.  I don’t even know if there’s a word for it.  He’s not afraid of kids like Michael; he doesn’t have to be taught tolerance.  He doesn’t know any different.  I think often about kids who were born into families with dogs or other pets.  They don’t know a life without a pet.  No, I’m  not comparing Michael to a dog – please don’t misunderstand.  What I’m saying is that Christopher has never known a life without autism in it.  In so many ways, that has made him an amazing boy.  He has empathy and sensitivity.  He has knowledge and understanding beyond his years.  He’s learned to care for another person in ways most 9-year-olds don’t.  He helps Michael take a shower; he sometimes knows what Michael is trying to say when Mike and I do not.  He always takes an extra Starburst from the aftercare lady on Fridays for his brother.

And yet…..

I cry sometimes for the fact that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a sibling like the siblings I have.  My heart breaks when he spends 2 weeks playing with his cousins in the summer, and then they have to leave.  I feel bad when Mike and I have to scold him for butting into our conversations.  I hate seeing him constantly in front of a “screen” because he has nothing else to do.  

Christopher has a lot of really nice friends.  Unfortunately, most of them don’t live close by (that’s one of the things about going to Catholic school – the kids come from all over).  I do try to schedule lots of time for him to spend with his friends.  But there are times when we want to just have family time.  It’s hard to strike that balance.  

On the other side of the coin, Michael absolutely, positively LOVES Christopher.  If Christopher is not with me when I pick up Michael from school, the first thing he says when he notices is “Go get Christopher”.  If Chris is at a playdate or a birthday party for a few hours, Michael will repeat “Christopher’s coming” – almost like he’s reminding himself, that Christopher will be back soon.  Christopher is a huge part of Michael’s life.   And I know how much Christopher loves Michael.  I see it in the hugs he gives him before he leaves for school.  I hear it in the comments he makes when he sees a Mickey Mouse toy at Target – “Michael would really like that”.  

Mike and I have “that talk” every so often – what would happen to our kids if, God forbid, neither of us was around?  Where will Michael live when we can’t take care of him anymore?  On more than one occasion, Christopher has piped up “I’M going to take care of him; he will live with me.”   

Yes, our family dynamic is very different.  But the family love remains the same.