My sister invited me to her classroom recently. She is an instructional aide working with autistic kids. The regular teacher has been out for quite awhile, due to a medical emergency that became more complicated when they tried to treat it, so they have had a couple of long-term substitutes. So, in reality, the instructional aides have been running things and my sister is the senior-most instructional aide.
The deal was that I could come to her class on their last day of school and play my ukulele for them. Each student's program is highly individualized, so their aren't many times during the day that all of the students gather as one class. Instead, each student usually does their own thing. As opposed to the usual room filled with desks in rows, this class room is set up with activity centers, with lots of cubicles to help the students concentrate. I noticed that, even when they are all gathered in the play area, each student seems disengaged from the other students, unless one ventures into another's space.
So, most of the time, I provided ambient music. I practiced mostly the more difficult songs that I have been learning.
There are seven elementary school-aged boys in this class and almost as many adults to see to their needs and intervene if any of them act out inappropriately. Trust me, each instructional aide and teacher that enters this classroom has their work cut out for them.
Eric was the first student in the door. He was to receive an award for being promoted to the middle school next year, as well as one for art. I offered my hand to shake. He took it and shook it for a while. Sis had to cue him to stop. Eric was a pretty calm kid otherwise. My sister says his artwork is pretty wonderful.
Joey reminded me a little of Eeyore. He spoke with a slow, forlorn cadence of one for whom life had been a struggle. When my sister introduced me, she mentioned that I had diabetes (type 2). I asked him if he had diabetes, to which he replied, "unfortunately yes." Joey blood sugar needs to be monitored pretty carefully by the staff.
My sister later told me a Joey story, where the class had gone to a place called Rita's to get some Italian Ice stuff, what ever it's called. She told Joey that he cold have some, but he'd have to get two "mosquito bites" (insulin shots). Joey thought for awhile and finally said that he'd take both the mosquito bites and the ice. Later, my sister asked him if it was worth it, to which Joey replied "You bet."
Joey has to get his blood tested before he gets on the bus for home because, if it's too high or too low, he could have a serious problem. The day I visited, Joey tested low. The nurse at the office gave him a couple of sugar tablets and tested him again and his blood sugar was even lower. It took awhile to get it right.
A student named King was one of the most interesting students. He was a cute kid, skinny with buck teeth. He had one man, Mr. Tom, who spent the whole day monitoring just him. King sometimes would invade other people's space and had a problem with biting people at one time. King also had very poor communication skills and severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My sister told me that there would be times that King would just get locked into an OCD cycle that he could not get through and would just roll around on the floor until it passed.
Mr. Tom brought King over to me and said "King really likes music." King's toothy smile told me as much. I then noticed his two dinosaurs that he had with him. The whole time we were in the classroom, King would alternate between dinosaurs, clicking one against his teeth three times, putting it in his pack, then taking the other out, clicking that with his teeth, walk around the room, then go back to his pack and repeat the process. At one point, King approached me, holding the dinosaur close to his face and, just inches from my face, whispered "Grrrr," clicked the dinosaur against his teeth, and scrambled back to exchange it with the one in his pack.
At the awards assembly, King suddenly jumped up and got really close to a random man in the audience. Mr. Tom quickly followed King and gently guided him back to his seat.
Like most people, Most of what I knew about autism I got from "Rainman." I had also read the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel told from the point of view of an autistic kid.
But I had never seen autism in real time before. The day left me feeling proud of my sister and the work she does.