I attended my youngest daughter’s kindergarten graduation recently. It was lovely and emotional and sweet and funny. It was the perfect ending to, what I believe is, the most crucial educational year for children. Imagine the enormous amount of knowledge that children acquire between birth and the end of kindergarten. It’s mind-blowing really — they learn to sit and crawl and walk and talk and play. They learn to use the bathroom by themselves and to recognize letters and numbers. They learn to read and write and talk more… they learn major life skills in the first six years. And at the end of those six years, at the end of kindergarten… our dreams as parents come true when we see them shed their cocoons and emerge as butterflies. That’s my reality, as the parent of children who aren’t affected by autism. But, reality can look different for others… dreams can look different for the parents of children with autism.
When I first started teaching my preschool class for children with special needs, I never hesitated to start the tradition of having an end of the year “graduation” program. It just made sense, all the preschools did it — why wouldn’t I? After all, I, at 22, was sure I was “the miracle worker”. I thought of the end of the year graduation program as a place to showcase all I had accomplished that year — me, “the miracle worker”.
I taught my students a variety of songs about the weather and letters and days of the week and months of the year. I taught them to sing (sort of) “Hero” by Mariah Carey. I beamed as the parents and grandparents and family friends struggled to contain their tears. I guess it didn’t take long, even for a 22 year-old, to realize something else entirely different was happening during that graduation ceremony. Normalcy was happening. Dreams were happening.
Over the next several years, as I realized I wasn’t “the miracle worker”, I began to hear what the parents of my student’s were actually saying. I began to listen to the dreams they had, the dreams they didn’t want to let go of, the dreams that were often faltering under the weight of the reality of autism. Dreams of attending kindergarten like everyone else, dreams of playing baseball like everyone else, dreams of graduating high school like everyone else. Dreams that shouldn’t be tossed aside.
Around the second or third year I taught, a beautiful brown-haired, blue-eyed boy with autism showed up to enroll. Looking at him was glorious because he was physically perfect for a four-year old. He had perfect little muscles in his arms and legs, he had perfect rose-colored lips, he had a perfect smile. Everyone who saw him immediately remarked on his looks. He had autism. He didn’t speak. He often cried. He slapped the back of his neck so hard he would leave bruises.
His mother told me of her dreams for him — the ones she had when he was born, and the ones she had then, as he was a four-year old diagnosed with autism. She had given up a few dreams for him, already. She convinced herself that giving up her dream of hearing his name announced over a loud-speaker as he scored the winning touchdown and replacing it with the dream that he would one day say, “I love you mom” was perfectly reasonable and she didn’t need to dwell. She convinced herself that the new dreams were just as important, just as meaningful, just as attainable. I spent a large portion of that first year he was in my class trying to get this beautiful little boy to show me some sign that he was in there, to show me he understood — to show me I was doing something viable. I think sometimes as an educator of children with special needs — that’s what we need — just to know we are viable.
By the end of his second year in my class, I was discouraged to say the least. I didn’t know what avenue to take with him — he was five and I had all but given up. I expressed my frustration to his mother quite often. She would encourage me to keep trying, just keep trying. I, in all my wisdom as a 22 year-old teacher, thought my angst about teaching him was greater than any that others could possibly be feeling — even his mother.
One day, at the beginning of his third year in my class, his mother told me she needed to hear him say, “Mom.” I explained that I didn’t think I could help him…I didn’t think I had anything new to try. She, again, encouraged me to keep trying, just keep trying. She brought a tape for me to watch that day. I reluctantly put it in the recorder and pushed play. It was him, just a few months before he had started my class — but it was surreal. The beautiful boy on the tape was calm and inquisitive and talking — he was talking. He said, “look at big bird momma.” Those words, those five words. I broke down in tears. I knew his mother’s heart broke everyday that passed by without hearing those words — everyday that her old dreams faded into the walls of her memory and slowly became replaced with new dreams, very different dreams.
Working with children with autism is a balancing act — there are attempts that don’t work, there are successes. We keep trying. We want so desperately to be a catalyst for our students to achieve those well planned out dreams. We read all the professional books. We study all the research. That’s what we do as educators of children with autism — we learn, we try, we start over.
We have graduation programs where we teach our kids to sing Hero by Mariah Carey and I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. We give out diplomas and we take pictures dressed in caps and gowns. Because for one night, anyway, we want the dream to be achieved, we want for there to be a small amount of normalcy… we want to give the parents and the children a night where the old dreams don’t need to be replaced.