The instant I closed the front door behind him on the first day of fourth grade, James burst into tears as if I’d popped his cork. Just as I’d feared.
“My teacher said if I forget to write my name on my paper she’ll make me do it 800 times. Call her,” he begged. “Tell her she needs to treat me different.”
“Remember, James has autism,” I whispered to the teacher in the hallway the next day. “He takes everything literally. Plus, fear doesn’t motivate him. It paralyzes him.”
“I’ll talk to him,” she said. Then she lectured me for 15 minutes about the subtleties of scaring kids versus motivating them. I skulked home.
Although new for James, this teacher had been at his school for 17 years. She had a pet bearded dragon lizard and also coached the school’s Academic Games team. James would rather die than play Academic Games. All day his brain wages a tug-of-war between the intoxicating allure of sports and the more subtle charms of academics. Add a sluggish work speed, and James has to exert maximum effort to achieve an average result.
James’s teacher had a reputation. “She’s great,” I’d heard, “with gifted kids.” She was funny, spontaneous, even sarcastic. One day, I watched her drag a child by his backpack strap the same way my father described being dragged by his earlobe back in the 1940s. Except that between belly laughs, the child was telling a lengthy story. And she was listening.
For 10 years, I was a psychologist specializing in early identification of autism. Until James was 4 years old, I had consulted at his school. I’d encouraged parents to advocate for their autistic children, because teachers can’t always see the whole picture. By definition, children with social-language disabilities have trouble communicating, particularly on-the-spot.
Last year’s teacher and I watched for signs that James was bottling up his frustration until he got home: pickier eating, bed-wetting, night waking, repetitive complaining, homework tantrums. When that happened, she would ease up at school. We were the successful mother-teacher team I’d tried to foster for my patients. Now that James was in fourth grade, though, I had to start over.
“I don’t see James as a boy with autism,” the fourth-grade teacher declared at our first conference. “He’s a sweet, hard-working little boy who loves sports.”
It was a red flag I’d seen before, in my work as a psychologist. A first-grade teacher once emailed me minutes after my patient tore up the behavior chart I’d taped to his desk, as if to prove a point: Billy continues to whistle when asked to stop. Today, during social studies, he chose to take his markers and write on his clothing, his desk and his neighbors’ desks. He took his own desk, turned it around, and turned it upside-down. … He played with the children’s calendar sticks, hid under the USA rug and was very disruptive.
Billy had a long-standing diagnosis of autism, which this teacher ignored. Outrageous behavior can be a sign of being overwhelmed, I explained. Calm the child, and prevent the high-jinks. I could never convince that teacher to use prevention instead of reaction. I’d failed, but I told myself that some people just don’t get it about autism.
The first couple months of fourth grade passed smoothly, to my surprise. James complained the teacher was “too hard” on him, but he got his work done. One day he brought home a work sheet she’d called “crummy.” Imitating her, he waved it in front of my nose, as if it stank.
James earned As and Bs on his first report card, and was reading voluntarily for the first time. Although I’d never heard him utter a positive word about a teacher before, he kept sharing bearded dragon tidbits.
“Did you know that bearded dragons are sort of blind?” James asked me. “That’s what my teacher says. Because you see how our eyes are, we can see out of the corner? Their eyes are on the sides, so they can’t.” It was the first time he’d quoted a teacher.
The trouble started with little instances of miscommunication. If they forgot their homework, would they miss recess? I’d ask James what the teacher had said, and the answer would be a confused jumble: “We don’t miss recess for punishment anymore. But if you have three homework slips, there’s a note home and you might miss recess.”
The teacher was lecturing James, as she’d lectured me on the second day of school. I’d email, she’d clear things up, James would read her email a few times, and all would be well. I felt like a translator.
“I tend to be a storyteller,” the teacher said, and promised to talk to James again. Less talking, not more, would have helped.
On the drive to school two months into the school year, James discovered he’d left a book on the kitchen table at home.
“We have to go back!” he screamed, so loud my ears rang. “She’s going to kill me!”
“They have extra books,” I soothed, but he drowned me out with a continuous roar.
When pulling on the door handle didn’t work, James grabbed the steering wheel. I fended him off with one hand while white-knuckling the wheel with the other. James gagged, doubling over in his seat.
I parked the car and hauled James out of it. I’d been hoping something like this would happen. Now the teacher would see just how extreme James’s anxiety could get. Then she’d have to acknowledge his autism.
She met us in the hallway.
“What’s the matter?” she asked James, a hand on his shoulder, ignoring me.
“I forgot the book at home,” he pushed out through sobs and hiccups.
“James,” she murmured, bending down to his level. “What do I always say about forgetting? Are you a human being?”
“No,” said James, reflexively. I sank into a nearby chair.
“Yes, James,” she insisted. “You are a human being. And human beings forget stuff. It’s okay to forget your book once in a while.”
A human being. The only excuse James needed, when it came to his teacher.
“He’s becoming more independent. I want him to come straight to me if he makes mistakes, but he should never have to be this anxious,” she told me after James went inside the classroom.
We worked out a plan for James to approach her desk each morning, just to talk. Over time, he’d share difficulties he’d had with homework. Eventually, he’d admit forgetting something. The fourth-grade teacher taught James to be a typical student, “the dog ate my homework” and all.
“I’ll push him to do his best, you soothe him at home,” she said. As the year wore on, we talked less often.
Instead of making her a better teacher for autistic kids, instead of making me a better autism translator, fourth grade made James a better student.
“I still don’t see him as a boy with autism,” she said at our last conference. That’s okay now.
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