Before we received Sawyer’s diagnosis of autism, I struggled to explain his unusual behaviours to other parents. I desperately wanted them to see how sweet and loving he was, but often those traits were masked by his inability to keep still, his fondness for running headlong in to walls, and his exceptional talent for breaking anything that wasn’t glued down.
I fought hard to get Sawyer’s diagnosis in place before he started school, and although there were many reasons that it was so important to me, the word that always stuck firmly in my mind was acceptance. I wanted, needed Sawyer’s condition to be acknowledged, in the hope that with acceptance would come understanding.
In the first two years of school, Sawyer’s unusual traits were camouflaged by his age and those around him. Those of you who have been inside a reception-stage classroom will have a pretty good visual of the utter chaos, excitement and noise (fucking hell, the noise), and those of you who haven’t will probably now get the picture. So when Sawyer first started school, he sort of… fitted in to the chaos. But fast forward to his third year in school and things had definitely started to change. Other children had started to leave their frenzied enthusiasm behind, and had started to form close friendships, and become interested in school work and learning. And although Sawyer had started to slow down a bit, the other children had already veered off together on the same path, whilst Sawyer skipped in the woods alongside them. Alone.
It was around that time that one of the children in his class told me very innocently that ‘Sawyer is a little bit weird, isn’t he.’. I looked at her, and she looked back at me, and in that moment I could have given her the biggest hug in the world. All the time I had spent explaining to other mums, and the complex conversations I had had with teachers, and finally, FINALLY someone understood. Yes, Sawyer comes across as a little bit weird. Amazingly, beautifully, excitedly, I-could-pinch-myself-hard-because-I-can’t-get-over-how-a-child-can-be-so-lovely, ever so slightly…. weird. That night I realised that his friends needed to know that Sawyer has autism, and that some of his strange mannerisms and reactions to things are because of that condition. If his peers were ever going to accept and understand him, they had to know. And Sawyer would need to know too.
Fast forward to July of this year, and Sawyer had 3 friends over for an unofficial birthday party. Birthday parties in the usual sense are overwhelming for Sawyer, and since he showed no interest in having one, it seemed silly to push it. He and his friends played games and ate their lunch together, and for a while it felt like a normal play date that most parents are able to host. But about 45 minutes in, Sawyer became overwhelmed at the unusual situation and inability to find peace, and he started to edge his way toward meltdown. As he retreated in angst, his friends followed him half way up the stairs before they went quiet. Sawyer slammed his bedroom door, and as he did, his friend said ‘We just need to leave him. He needs time to calm down’. I watched them, mouth open and in awe, from the corner of the living room as they returned and resumed the games they had been playing minutes before. Sawyer rejoined them about 10 minutes later. Just like that. Just like that, his classmates understood him.
Last week, Sawyer was at an evening karate class (that’s another post, for another day!) and he is lucky enough to have one of his schoolmates in the same group. At the start of the session the children were all lined up at the edge of the room, waiting patiently to start. Waiting. Waiting is difficult for Sawyer, and it takes every last drop of his concentration to just sit still. During those few moments of waiting, a little boy next to him was asking him a question that Sawyer clearly did not want to, or could not answer. I watched from the opposite side of the room as Sawyer started to twitch and cover his ears. My body pulsed as it fought with my mind over whether or not I should intervene, but before I had the chance to stand up, his classmate very calmly leaned over and said ‘He has autism and sometimes needs to be left alone’. Again, mouth open, I stared in awe. And disbelief. Not only are these kids able to grasp the fact that Sawyer has autism, they are able to help him by passing that knowledge to other children.
That evening as I downed sipped a glass of wine, I thought about how proud I am of Sawyer, but for the first time I started to realise that I am proud of his peers, too. The children in Sawyer’s class show much more understanding and acceptance of autism than most adults are able to, and that gives me so much hope for the future – not just for people with autism, but for so many things. If you can teach 7-year-olds to be inclusive and understanding and empathetic, you are already building a generation of inclusive, understanding and empathetic adults. And if they can be understanding and accepting of disability, then it shows how we can teach our children to be accepting of everybody, regardless of disability, sex, sexuality, race, religion, and body size.
There is hope for the future, and that hope starts with what we teach our children.
Whether they have autism or not.