Teacher’s Pet (Part 3)

In June of last year, I attended my niece’s high school graduation. I was happy for my niece, but I found the ceremony speeches tedious to sit through. The speech of an elderly English teacher told the story of a boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back in the ocean. A man comes up to the boy and tells him that he can’t possibly hope to make a difference when there are so many stranded starfish on so many miles of shoreline. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it in to the sea and replies….

 

“Makes a difference to that one!” I said smugly to my sister as the teacher paused for dramatic effect. I’d heard that fable before. It was in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books I read when I was in middle school.

 

As tedious as that graduation ceremony was, I think it ultimately played a part in me finally returning to college to finish my degree the following winter. During the first week of class I had dinner with a friend of mine.

 

“Hey there, dinner date!” my friend greeted me, as I stepped in to her car from my driveway.

 

I kissed her on the cheek and asked her how her day was.

 

“Stressful. My students are driving me crazy.”

 

“Too bad you can’t have more students like me.”

 

Although I call my friend by her first name now, in a part of my mind she’ll always be Mrs. Walters.

 

“You’re looking good,” she said as she turned to me from the driver’s seat.

 

“Thanks. I brushed my hair and there’s no toothpaste in it…Remember when I got that sewing needle caught in my hair?’’

 

“Of course. I’ll never forget that.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what you said when it happened 20 years ago.”

 

“Gosh. Has it really been 20 years?”

 

We settled in to one of those diners off Route 1 that are so emblematic of New Jersey.

 

A loaf of bread was placed in the middle of the table. I told her she should cut it because her fine motor skills are better than mine.

 

I congratulated her on winning the teacher of the year award and told her no one deserved it more than her.

 

She told me she will be retiring at the end of the year and that next year she will be volunteering in the school with dogs. She showed me a funny cell phone video of dogs. We talked about our previous and current pets. She asked if I remembered Mrs. Staggard and I said that yeah, I remember I was jealous that her class had a hamster and ours didn’t.

 

“I like how you remember everyone by their animals.”

 

Throughout that dinner as the intervening years between middle school seemed to melt away and the past seemed to meld with the present, I was filled with the kind of joy that comes with catching up with an old friend that you connect with so genuinely and so completely, but I also felt tinges of sadness. I found myself wishing I’d “overcome” the struggles I’d faced in middle school and become a “normal” adult. Instead I’d become the kind of adult who can’t hold a job, live on her own, or have a romantic relationship.

 

Yet I knew the fact that I was sitting there right then having dinner with a long- time friend was a testament to what I have overcome. Maintaining friendships with other humans once seemed impossible for me. Now I have become a social animal. I know I owe it all to the good animals, good friends and good teachers in my life. I also know that those are overlapping categories.

 

On the drive home my friend talked about how special education has changed over the years, how she could never get away with being as friendly with her students now as she was with me back then. She said she’s seeing an increase in aggressive, depressive and suicidal behavior in students. She said she used to think she could make a difference as a special education teacher but now she’s not so sure.

 

That statement shocked and bothered me. As I reached across the car to rest my hand on her shoulder, that starfish metaphor entered my head and it was as though my arm had been transformed in to the arm of a starfish.

 

“You made a difference to me.”

 

 

Teacher’s Pet (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Here’s an essay I wrote for my writing class last year about a teacher who made a difference in my lie. Enjoy.

 As I walked the hallways of my new school building on the first day of seventh grade, I noticed that the first class listed on my schedule was supplemental. “What on earth is supplemental?’’ I wondered. When I entered the designated classroom, I noticed that it was a small classroom with a table instead of desks. There were only six other students seated around the table. At that point I realized what supplemental was. It was the special education class.

I’d had special education services my whole life, but it had been a while since I’d been in a special education classroom. Back when I was in first grade it was referred to as resource room.

My second-grade teacher had suggested that perhaps special education services in a public school were not enough for me so in the summer my parents sent me to a school for the learning disabled for a trial period. That school said I was welcome to come back in the fall, but they weren’t sure there was much they could do for me because their school was catered toward kids with language- based learning disabilities and my language skills were advanced. My parents asked me whether I wanted to return to the public school in the fall or remain in the special school. I was initially indifferent but when I heard that the third- grade teacher I had been assigned to in the public school kept a pet rabbit in the classroom I decided I wanted to return to public school.

I preferred the company of animals to the company of humans. Animals wouldn’t criticize my poor social skills, poor fine motor skills or poor visual spatial skills. They wouldn’t complain that I was disheveled, disorganized or inattentive. When I flapped my hands, they wouldn’t ask me why I did that or inform me that it’s not something normal people do. Some of them would just flap their wings in return. Friendships with humans were elusive to me but friendships with animals came naturally.

This teacher who sat in front of the table in my first class on my first day of seventh grade was middle aged with shoulder length blond hair and deep blue eyes. She introduced herself as Mrs. Walters. She said she was going to tell us a little bit about herself and then we would take turns going around the table telling everyone about ourselves. I groaned inwardly. I hated telling people about myself. I hated talking to people in general. Elective mutism was one of the many diagnoses that had been given to me over the years and then discarded. I did not fit neatly in to any one diagnostic category.

I was only half listening as Mrs. Walters told us about her husband, her kids and the town in which she lived but my ears perked up when she told us about her menagerie of pets. While my educational and psychological reports often noted that I showed little interest in other people, I was, however, interested in other people’s animals. Mrs. Walters obviously was too since as we went around the room she encouraged the students to talk about their pets. Mrs. Walters had an impressive collection of pets and so did some of the other students in the class but since I was going through my animal hoarding phase at the time, I had the largest menagerie of all. When it was my turn to speak, mouths dropped open as I shared my list of pets. I’d kind of enjoyed  speaking about myself in that instance.

The next day Mrs. Walters decided to ask us if we knew why we were in her class. It was the first time I’d ever heard a special education teacher address the issue.

“Because we don’t do our homework?” a girl named Patience ventured.

“No, actually that’s not why you’re in here. You’re in here because you learn differently….”

Just then something in the corner of the room caught my eye.

“You got a fish?” I asked Mrs. Walters, pointing to the swirl of rainbow colored fins gliding through the water of an oblong tank.

“ Oh, yeah. I just got him yesterday at the pet store.”

“What’s his name?”

“I think I’m going to call him Frisky. He seems pretty frisky, don’t you think?”

“He’s a Japanese Fighter Fish, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“I have a fighter fish.”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Bluefish.”

“That’s a cute name.”

“Did you know that sometimes when fighter fish shit, the shit comes out of their neck?”

“Please don’t use that kind of language in my classroom. Say poop instead,” Mrs. Walters finally replied, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the room.

Fish shit-I mean poop- may not have been the most appropriate conversation topic but it was a rare instance of me choosing to spontaneously engage in conversation and share information with someone I didn’t know very well.

As the days wore on I continued to open up in Mrs. Walters’ class, which was an unstructured class that was in place of the study hall my more typically developing peers got. While conversations were discouraged in study hall, they often took place in Mrs. Walters’ class. Since we were a group of animal loving kids with an animal loving teacher, the conversations often centered around animals. Animals were a subject I was interested in and a subject in which I prided myself on my experience and knowledge, so I took part in the conversations. My contributions weren’t always socially appropriate but after I told a kid that I thought his basset hound was ugly and told Mrs. Walters that I did not like her dog’s name, Mrs. Walters helpfully informed me that I was going to get beat up if I kept insulting peoples’ pets.

I was always the last one out of Mrs. Walters’ classroom. Sometimes I would linger behind with my face pressed in front of Frisky’s aquarium and sometimes Mrs. Walters would hand me pellets to feed to him. Often, I would be struggling to cram all my crumpled papers, battered books and pens without caps in to my backpack. Mrs. Walters would help me get my materials together and since we were both headed towards language arts class, we would walk to class together. While many middle schoolers would walk to class conversing with a friend by their side, I did not. At first walking to class with a teacher felt even more weird and unnatural but I soon got used to it. We mostly talked about animals.

 

Unfortunately, I had a hard time in some of my other classes and I had a hard time adjusting to middle school in general. I struggled to get to class on time and to finish my assignments on time. I struggled with opening my locker and keeping my papers organized. I struggled with math and science and gym. I struggled to sit still and pay attention throughout the day.

Since I struggled so much in school, Mrs. Walters had to periodically provide me with support throughout the school day. Sometimes I would have to spend my lunch period with her working on skills such as opening my locker. At first, I resented it but soon I not only tolerated but looked forward to having lunch with her. I related to her in a way I couldn’t relate to my peers. She would talk to me about her dog Daisy who was a mutt that looked like Lassie and I would talk to her about my chickens that lived under my trampoline. She would ask me what pet I thought she should get and I’d give her my best advice. She’d lament on the pets she wanted but her husband wouldn’t let her have and I’d commiserate with the pets I wanted but my parents wouldn’t let me have.

The struggles I’d been having in middle school came to a head about a month in to the school year. My social studies teacher, Ms. Maurer, called me in to the hallway. “Why are you always late to class?” she demanded to know. I lowered my head and said nothing.

“Please answer me.” She was growing increasingly irritated.

“I don’t know,” I said softly.

“You don’t know?’’ she retorted incredulously. Her face was just inches from mine.

My heart was racing, and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

Just then Mrs. Walters was walking by in the hallway. “Hey, Mrs. Walters, can you come here for a minute?” Ms. Maurer asked.

“Sure. What’s going on?”

“Kira is five minutes late to class every single day!’’

“Okay. I walk to class with Kira sometimes. I’m sure I can help her figure out how to get to class on time.”

“She better figure it out because this behavior is unacceptable!” She was outright yelling now.

My lip started quivering. I struggled to maintain composure, but I lost control and burst in to tears. There I was, twelve years old, and sobbing in the middle of the school hallway like a baby. I hadn’t felt this humiliated since I’d peed my pants in front of the class in first grade.

Mrs. Walters wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Everything’s going to be okay, honey. Why don’t you go in to the bathroom and freshen up while I talk to Ms. Maurer?”

Unfortunately, this was just the first of many indignities that I would face in middle school. Fortunately, it was also the first of many times that Mrs. Walters would comfort me and save the day.

One day as I was getting ready to hand in my homework in science class, I realized I’d forgotten to write my name on it. As I started to write my name on it, Mrs. Strachan, my ill-tempered science teacher, noticed and said, “Kira, I’m going to have to mark your homework as not finished.” My face flushed. Then Mrs. Strachan turned to Cara, the girl who was sitting next to me and the star student of the class.

“Kira, thinks she can get away with slacking off but we’re not going to let her, are we, Cara?”

I slunk down in my seat and wished the floor would swallow me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Walters.

“It’s okay, Kira. Let’s go to the back table. I’ll help you with your lab.”

***

While many of my developmental milestones had been delayed, my speech came early. I spoke my first word when I was nine months old. That word was no. My second word was cat. Those words ended up being a good summation of my personality. I love animals and I have a stubborn argumentative streak. When I argue about animals I am particularly tenacious.

While I was happy to have a class pet, there’s only so much gratification you can get out of a fish. I longed for a fuzzy class pet I could interact with. I longed for the days of third grade in which in addition to Pumpkin and Marshmallow the class goldfish, there was Eppie the class rabbit and the caterpillars we kept on our desk and released when they turned in to butterflies. I knew Mrs. Walters loved animals so I decided to try my luck in convincing her to purchase more class pets.

“Mrs. Walters, can we get another class pet?” I asked hopefully.

She sighed. “No, Kira, we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re only in this room for an hour a day and I have enough animals to take care of at home.”

“Why can’t we get a hamster? They’re easy to take care of.”

“Mrs. Staggard has a hamster so if you want to see a hamster you can go over to her classroom.”

“How come her class can have a hamster and ours can’t?” I countered.

“It would be nice if you were a little less argumentative.”

 

Then there was the issue of homework. I could be a good student when I wanted to be, but I didn’t always feel like putting in the effort and I found the workload in middle school to be rather overwhelming. In regular study hall the teacher just sat at her desk and left the students alone, but Mrs. Walters was always on her students’ backs about homework and I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion.

 

“Kira, did you do your science homework?”
“No.”

“Did you do your math homework?”

“No.’’

“Well, I guess you decided to take the night off!”

“I don’t want to do homework.”

“I don’t want to clean my bathroom, but I still do it.”

 

 

One day after she told me I had to re-do a worksheet I’d just done because she knew I could do better, I snatched the pencil and paper from her and threw daggers at her with my eyes.

She smiled assuredly. “You love me. I know you do.”

I could not argue with her there.

 

When Mrs. Staggard brought her hamster to visit our classroom, Mrs. Walters cooed over it and said, “I missed my calling as a veterinarian.”

Even as I resented the fact that she wouldn’t let our class have a hamster, I recognized that she’d found her calling as a teacher.

 

 

One of our projects in language arts was a speech project about a family tradition that required us to bring in a prop. My speech was about my family tradition of playing an egg knocking game on Easter. In addition to not looking forward to speaking in front of the class, I was unsure about what prop to bring in.

“Why do I have to bring in a stupid prop?” I whined to Mrs. Walters.

“Hey guys, what do you think looks better, Kira standing in front of the class with nothing or Kira standing in front of the class with colorful Easter eggs?”

“I know! I’ll bring in my rabbit!’’

“I don’t know about that….”

“Come on. It would be so much fun!”

“Yes, it would be fun but I’m not sure the teachers would be okay with it.”

“Can’t you convince them?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

By the end of the day I had permission to bring my rabbit to school.

The next day, Mrs. Strachan who I had the misfortune of having as a homeroom teacher, insisted I keep Scarlett O’Hare in her carrier but Mrs. Walters was quite happy to meet her, as was the rest of the class. “Aw, she’s so cute!” they all squealed in delight. They asked me questions about Scarlett, which I eagerly answered.

Mrs. Walters decided we needed a class picture with the rabbit and left the room to get a camera. I held my rabbit as my peers gathered around me and I smiled. Mrs. Walters handed me the polaroid.

As I moved from class to class that day, students and teachers alike continued to fawn over my rabbit. They continued to ask me questions about her and I continued to engage in conversation with them. When the time came to give my speech, being able to pet Scarlett throughout it calmed me down and I performed well.

“I wish you could bring your rabbit to school every day,” Mrs. Walters said to me.

 

While I too would have liked to bring my rabbit to school every day, I recognized that I was still reaping the benefits of my one bring your rabbit to school day months later. I could not find a way to incorporate my rabbit in to my next speech but the confidence I had gained as a result of my successful previous speech served me well when it came to giving a speech as civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. Despite the awkward crying incident in the hallway, Ms. Maurer had really taken to me after I’d brought Scarlett O’Hare in. She did my hair and makeup for my Shirley Chisolm speech and it was quite a change from my usual disheveled appearance. By the time I’d finished my speech, I was the one making her cry. Mrs. Walters was crying too. So were my other teachers.

 

I faced my biggest struggle of seventh grade when I had to take a sewing class. I was just terrible at sewing and not even the fact that I was sewing a type of animal could make up for the trauma that pig pillow inflicted on me. Mrs. Walters tried her best to help and encourage me but eventually we both conceded defeat.

“I hate this! I can’t do this anymore!’’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in frustration.

Mrs. Walters considered for a moment and then said, “I know you can’t and I see that you’ve tried your best so give me the needle and I’ll do the rest for you.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t tell your sewing teacher.”

“Damn it! I can’t find my needle.”

“Keep looking. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Suddenly she was laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I found your needle.”

“Where?”

“In your hair!”

I touched my head and sure enough there my needle was.

“Hold on, honey. Let me help you. There’s toothpaste in your hair.”

“I will never forget this moment,” she said as she reached in to my hair.

I knew I would never forget it either.

 

 

It was in seventh grade that the beast called depression first started clawing at me. As I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t have many people to talk to. However, I did have one friend, whose name was Jessie. We’d initially bonded over a discussion about her pet rabbit. I was described as just barely tolerating Jessie, but I did sit with her at lunch and sometimes I even talked to her.

“Jessie, do you ever get depressed?” I asked in the lunchroom.

“No. what would I be depressed about?’’

It figured that Jessie would have nothing to be depressed about. She was the kind of kid who easily got straight A’s and whose school materials were always perfectly organized.

That evening at home my mother came in to my bedroom to talk to me.

“Hey, Kira. Mrs. Walters just called me. She’s worried about you.”

“Why?”

“She thinks you’re depressed.”

“Why does she think that?”

“ She says you’re always arguing with her and giving her a hard time but suddenly you’ve stopped doing that.”

 

“So, did your mom tell you I called her last night?” Mrs. Walters asked me the next day.

“Yeah.”

“I’m worried about you, kid.”

I stared at the floor.

“Your mom tells me you feel badly about yourself. Is that true?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you feel bad about yourself?’’

“I’m just bad at everything.”

“That’s not true. You’re good at arguing with me, you’re good at making me laugh, you’re good at writing.”

“My handwriting is terrible.”

“I’m not talking about handwriting. I’m talking about the things you write.”

Her eyes were full of concern.

“You do well in all your subjects.”

“No, I don’t. I get C’s in math and science.”

“So? If you try your best you should be proud of a C. You don’t have to get A’s in everything.’’

“Other people do.”

“You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.”

“You have to help me with everything! No one else needs this much help!”

I was afraid I was going to cry in school again. Mrs. Walters looked like she might cry herself.

“Oh, honey, I know some things are hard for you, but I enjoy helping you and you’ve taught me something. You’ve taught me that there are things people can do and there are things they can’t do. You’re a very bright girl. No, you’re never going to be a seamstress but that’s okay. You have other talents.”

I made my way over toward Frisky’s tank.

“Will you think about what I said?”

I nodded.

“So, what are you asking for for Christmas?”

“A goat.”

“Oh, Kira. Can you take care of all these animals?”

“I don’t think you have much room to talk. You have quite the menagerie yourself.”

 

 

Over Christmas break Mrs. Walters allowed me to take Frisky home with me.

“Hi, Kira!” she greeted me when I returned

I fiddled with the strap on my overalls

“Can I get a response?’’

“Hi,” I said softly

“Did you get a lot of presents for Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“What was your favorite present?”

“I don’t know.”

“I heard you got an aquarium. I bet that was your favorite present.”

It was true. The twenty- gallon aquarium had been my favorite present, but the encyclopedia of mammals had been a close second. My mom had persuaded me to invite Jessie over for a sleepover during Christmas break. When she asked us if we wanted to watch TV, I’d replied that no, we’d watch the aquarium instead. For a while Jessie enjoyed and then tolerated all my talk of aquarium fish, which carried on in to the school cafeteria but eventually she tired of it. No matter, Mrs. Walters was happy to continue discussing aquarium fish with me.

 

One day Mrs. Walters was sitting in one of the main classrooms helping me with a reading project and talking to me about chickens when my math teacher walked by. The project was a self-representation collage that involved cutting and pasting materials from magazines so of course it was taxing on my fine motor skills and of course most of the pictures in my collage were of animals. I was talking about how the neighbors had been complaining about my rooster crowing in the morning so my father had decided that my rooster would have to sleep in a hamper in the closet at night rather than in the garbage can under the trampoline with the other chickens and now my rooster had been trained to jump in to the hamper in the closet at night all on his own. This was typical conversation between the two of us, but the math teacher was understandably a bit perplexed by it.

“So, you have chickens and a rabbit?” he said to me.

“Oh, Kira has a lot of pets. Tell him about your animals.”

I clammed up and shook my head.

“You seem to know Kira pretty well,” he said to Mrs. Walters.

“I know Kira like the back of my hand.”

 

In April I missed a day of school for a neurologist appointment. Mrs. Walters was asked to submit a report for the neurologist and since I was a nosy child I took the report out of my mother’s desk and read it. She’d written that I was a great young lady and a proficient writer, but that unfortunately fine motor skills deficits interfered with my achievement. When asked if I had trouble getting along with other students, she said it wasn’t that I didn’t get along with other students, but I chose not to interact with them much and that I tended to only converse with people I knew well. She remarked that I was inattentive and fidgety throughout the school day and that since I struggled with opening my locker, I chose to carry around a backpack that weighed about seventeen pounds. She noted that I often came to class with my hair unbrushed, my shoes untied and toothpaste on my face but that none of those things bothered me.

 

Based on the unusually large discrepancy between my superior verbal IQ and borderline performance IQ, the neurologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder. It was a complicated and poorly understood disorder that seemed to account for all my symptoms except the flapping.

 

My mom accumulated all the books and articles she could find on the disorder. Several of them noted that middle school is the time when things start to become really challenging for the child with NVLD. They gave examples of kids who were repeatedly misunderstood and judged by their peers and teachers to the point that they felt hopeless and helpless. They came to the conclusion that they lived in a world not built to accommodate them.

 

I could certainly relate to those feelings, but I knew that I was extremely lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Walters. She had shown me a part of the world that did accommodate me. She accepted and appreciated me as thoroughly and completely as animals did. I liked her as much and felt as comfortable with her as I did with animals.

 

The trouble kids with NVLD had making friends was well documented. It was said that they tended to prefer the company of adults to the company of their peers. Mrs. Walters wasn’t just my teacher. She had also become my friend.

 

Soon preparation was being made of for the end of the school year. At my IEP meeting we talked about how I’d done in seventh grade. My mother said, “I think she hasn’t done as well this year because it was hard for her to deal with things like switching between classes and using lockers.”

 

Mrs. Walters got along very well with my mother but on this point, she felt the need to correct her. “Actually, she has done well this year. I’m very proud of her.”

 

As I was feeding Frisky his pellets during the last week of school, Mrs. Walters told me that she didn’t think she could keep him over the summer or in her classroom next year. She asked if I would like to have him. I said I would.

 

The day before the last day of school my mother took me to get goodbye presents for my teachers. I selected chicken stationery and a matching chicken bookmark for Mrs. Walters. As I was putting the cards in the envelopes, my mother told me she’d written a note of her own to Mrs. Walters that she wanted me to give to her.

 

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because Mrs. Walters takes such good care of you and I wanted to thank her.”

 

“Smile, Mrs. Walters!” I said as I sat in her classroom for the last time and pointed a disposable camera at her.

She smiled obligingly.

“Another one!”

This time the other students posed next to her.

I flashed the camera a third time.

“Okay, Kira. I think that’s enough pictures.”

“I have something for you.”

I handed her the gifts and the card.

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”

She opened the card and read the note I’d written to her saying that I’d tried to sew her a sweater as a goodbye gift, but it hadn’t worked out too well.

She laughed. “You have such a great sense of humor.”

 

“Are you sure you have everything you need, kid?” she asked me as the day drew to a close and the busses began to arrive.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Promise me you’ll take good care of Frisky?”

I vowed to take as good care of him as she had taken of me.

“We’ve had a lot of fun this year. I’m really going to miss you.”

I crammed the last of my wrinkled papers in to my seventeen- pound backpack and zipped it up.

“And I think you’re going to miss me too.”

I smiled slightly and then started to frown.

“But we’ll see each other around the building next year,” she added.

The last bell rang.

She drew me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Write to me over the summer,” she called after me as I made my way towards the bus.

 

A few weeks later a letter arrived for me in the mail. It was written on chicken stationery.

 

Dear Kira,

I love my new stationery and the great bookmark. I will be using it all summer because this is the time of year I enjoy reading for pleasure and writing letters. I am waiting to receive some kind of correspondence from you…a postcard ..a letter…anything so I know how your summer is going so far. I have enclosed several cards with my address. I figure you should put them around everywhere so anytime you see one of them you will think about writing to me and if you lose one you’re bound to find another somewhere. You are a wonderful young lady and I’m so happy that you were in my class! I have to tell you that you are my favorite student! I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Walters

 

I put this letter from the best teacher I had ever had in the drawer at my bedside where I kept things that were important to me.

 

 

Sometimes I Feel Like I Don’t Have a Partner

The American education system needs a lot of reforms but one aspect in need of reform that I never see mentioned is the classroom partner system. By this I mean the practice of a teacher asking the students in the class to partner up with another student for a project or activity.  In fact, when I am queen of the world, I will ban the practice.

It may seem like a rather innocuous practice and in fact, most kids would probably rather have the freedom to choose their own partner than have one chosen for them but if you’re the socially awkward kid who always ends up being the one left without a partner, it’s torturous. I speak from experience on that one.

Every time the teacher told the class to find a partner I was filled with dread and discomfort. I would just sit or stand there awkwardly as everyone else scrambled to find a partner. I was never quite sure what to do with myself but there didn’t seem much point in trying to find a partner or in even pretending to try to find one.

Many socially challenged kids are bullied but I was not the kind of kid who was a target of bullying. I was just the kind of kid who no one wanted to have as a partner. Once most of the class had paired up, the teacher would ask if there was anyone who didn’t have a partner and I would have to raise my hand in shame, or worse, the teacher wouldn’t ask, and I would have to tell her I didn’t have a partner.

If there were an even number of kids in the class I would be paired off with the other poor, unfortunate soul who hadn’t found a partner. If there were an odd number of kids I  would have to be added to an existing partner pair to form a threesome. That often involved the teacher asking the class if any partners would be willing to take me on. There were rarely any volunteers and never any eager ones.

A threesome in a class full of partners is like a three-wheeled bicycle; it’s awkward, it’s useless and no one wants it. I had one pair of students I was thrust upon explicitly tell me they did not want to work with me. The rest told me that implicitly. While I did have some trouble picking up on implicit social cues, I had no trouble perceiving that I was not wanted as a partner. My classmates weren’t particularly subtle about it.

Of course even without the choose your own partner system, I still would have struggled socially both in and out of school and I would have been aware that I was a social outcast. It did not escape my notice that no one played with me at recess or that no one invited me over to their house after school. Yet being the one in the class left without a partner over and over again made my social issues tangible, public and humiliating in a way that I did not appreciate and it did my self esteem no favors. It was like having a sticker that said social reject stamped on my forehead while I was on stage in front of a captive audience.

I was recently watching a Netflix show geared towards teenagers that featured a scene in  which a high school teacher threatened a dawdling, misbehaving student with “Find a partner or I’ll find one for you!” I’ve heard that in real life too. For me that wouldn’t have been a threat; it would have been a promise of salvation. For the kids who did see that comment as a threat, being assigned me as a partner may have been the ultimate punishment.

I wish teachers just assigned partners as standard practice. I imagine the more socially adept kids would disagree though and there were more of those kinds of kids than there were kids like me. Of course kids would prefer to work with their friends but if you only ever work with your friends, that doesn’t lend itself itself towards making new friends or learning to work with different types of personalities. Once you grow up you can choose your romantic partner but for the most part you can’t choose your work colleagues. Being stuck with a bad partner for a school project sucks but it’s not like you have to to marry them.

***

Since I don’t have the best social skills and I’m not a very sociable person, Research Methods in Social Psychology would not have been my first choice of a research methods course but in order to graduate from college this summer I needed to take a research methods class and Research Methods in Social Psychology was the only one available.

The syllabus we were handed on the first day of class informed us that we would be doing a final project and that we had two options to choose from. Option A was an individual project. Option B involved working with a partner of your choosing.

I didn’t have to think twice about which option I would choose. I knew I wouldn’t be able  to find a partner and that was just as well because Option A was clearly the easier option and it was much more suited to my strengths and interests.

I walked out of the classroom that night feeling pretty good about my prospects in the class and about the project. As I was exiting the stairwell, one of my classmates approached me.

“Excuse me….?” she began

“Yeah?” I replied, a little nervously. I figured she was going to tell me my fly was undone or I had something in my teeth because those kinds of things are a part of my brand of social awkwardness and when a stranger stops to talk to me nine times out of ten it’s to tell me something of that nature.

My classmate cleared her throat and said “I was wondering, would you like to be my partner for the project?”

A Valentines Dance

The weather reports are predicting snow. I keep checking my e-mail to see if tonight’s Valentines dance will be canceled but it appears to still be on.

I’ve never been to a Valentines dance before (or any holiday dance for that matter) and I originally wasn’t planning on attending this one but when my volunteer supervisor told me it would be fun and I should come, I decided to think about it. When I received an e-mail saying more volunteers were needed for the dance, I sent a reply saying I would be there.

I won’t have to worry about bringing a date or hooking up with anyone at this dance but I will have to worry about setting up the decorations. This is a worry for me because my fine motor skills are even worse than my social skills and anything that involves work with my hands is unlikely to turn out well.

At least my social skills have improved, even if my fine motor skills haven’t. Sometimes skills atrophy from lack of use and god knows I was quite anti-social in recent years. A year ago I wouldn’t have even considered attending this dance but I wouldn’t have even known about it because I wouldn’t have been volunteering in a special needs expressive arts class at the community recreation center. This dance won’t just include the students from my class but various other people from the special needs community.

My mother drops me off at the recreation center and points out that no one appears to be there. I point out that the dance hasn’t started yet and assure her that the people will come. Upon entering the building, I see the DJs setting up their equipment and the other volunteers decorating the walls with red paper hearts.

“Kira, I’m so glad you came !” Lois, the expressive arts teacher exclaims as she hands me a paper heart and some tape. The other volunteers are hanging the hearts throughout the room, one after the other, making it look easy.  It’s not easy for me though. As I feared, the hearts become useless in my hands. Rolling the tape so that it sticks to both the heart and the wall is too complex a feat for me. Eventually I manage it in a haphazard way, only to be told that I’ve taped the heart to the wrong wall.

“Kira, what grade are you in?” a volunteer asks me.

“Oh, I’m an adult.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  You look so young.”

Exchanges like this are the story of my life.

The dancers are beginning to arrive. Quentin glides up to me in his wheelchair.

“Kira, you and I have something in common. We both go to Richards University!”

I’m attending Richards University for the third time after dropping out twice previously. This time I’m determined to finish my bachelor’s degree.

Quentin has a job at the Richards school cafeteria. I remember the times I spent eating in the cafeteria with my friends when I first attended the college-and I remember the times I spent eating alone there, feeling self-conscious. I remember when I found out that one of the girls in our friends group had asked the other girls not to invite me to come eat with them because I was “special” and she didn’t like that.

The music starts and the strobe lights are turned on. Glancing out the windows covered in signs that say ‘Happy Valentines Day’, I can see that snow is falling. Some people are dancing, some people are watching others and some are wandering around aimlessly making animal noises. One guy hoots and tears a heart off the wall.  Oh well, if it was one of the hearts applied by me it wouldn’t have lasted long anyway.

I’m one of the people dancing. On this dance floor I have no room for self consciousness.  I have this inability to sit still and am often ”dancing” around, no matter the time or place. This often gets me negative attention or expressions of concern from others who find my movements odd or socially inappropriate. Now that I’m in an environment where it’s considered socially appropriate to wildly move about, I’m not holding back. Several of the dancers are wearing flashing hearts around their necks. I find myself wishing I had one too.

An intermission is called and we head to the kitchen where refreshments are served. As I fill my plate with melon and a pink frosted cupcake, I notice a woman with short brown hair and glasses. She’s not one of the students from the expressive arts class I volunteer in but she’s a familiar face nonetheless.

“Hi, Maren. It’s Kira.  Remember me from Camp Everest?'”

“Camp Everest?”

“Yeah, we were in the same bunk at summer camp back when we were in high school.”

A flash of recognition passes over Maren’s face. She recites the first and last names of our camp counselors.

I remember how outraged I was when I first arrived at Camp Everest and saw that my bunkmates were Maren and people like her.  Yes, I knew this was a camp for disabled kids and I knew that I was disabled but I wasn’t that disabled, not in the way these people were disabled. My bunkmates were weird and you could tell they were disabled just by looking at them. I could pass for normal, at least at first glance. I had my fair share of problems but I was bright and articulate. My bunkmates were intellectually impaired and had trouble speaking in coherent sentences.

However, as time went on, I got over myself. I came to enjoy camp and the company of my bunkmates, especially Maren. I realized that I could roast marshmallows on the campfire, go boating on the lake, hike in the woods and it really didn’t fucking matter if the people I was doing it with were ‘”lower functioning” than I was. So what if the conversations were punctuated with random exclamations, questions and requests to go to Binghamton?  When it came down to it, my bunkmates were much nicer to me and more fun to be around than some of my more” typical” peers.

A few months after camp ended, I received a postcard from Maren.  It read “Hi, Kira. My name is Maren.  What is your mom’s name? When is her birthday ? What is your dad’s name? When is his birthday?….”and on and on until she ran out of room on the postcard mid question.

“Where do you live now? Where does your dad live? Do you drive?….Why don’t you drive….?'” I’m back in the present moment, on the dance floor with Maren. The final question she asks me is what my phone number is. I hesitate for a split second and then give it to her. She enters it in to her phone and then goes to tell one of the DJs that she wants her to be a plumber.

The music has resumed. The snow is picking up. A woman hands me one of those flashing heart necklaces. I pull out my phone and try to coordinate the flash of the camera with the flash of the heart necklace.

The swirl of colorful lights, the falling snowflakes, the rhythm, tempo and lyrics of the music are all coming together to create a dazzling, magical effect that leaves me feeling energized and giddy. A slow song comes on and the DJs instruct everyone to find a partner. I make my way to the other end of the dance floor. Two boys with Down Syndrome are dancing together hand in hand.  Maren has stopped dancing to gaze out in wonder at the rapidly accumulating snow.

“May I have this dance?” I ask Quentin. He smiles and takes my hands in his. I propel his wheelchair towards me and we sway with the music.

“Kira, you should join the special needs choir.”

“I’m not very good at singing.”

“That’s okay. They’d still take you.”

Now the dance is ending and people are leaving. They are thanked for coming and cautioned to be careful in the snow. The volunteers stay behind to take down the decorations. I am unable to get the decorations hanging from the ceiling off of their hooks.

“Kira, did you have a good time?” Lois asks me.

“Yes, it was a lot of fun. I think the snow added to the effect.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

I reach for my winter coat.

“Thanks for your help. See you on Wednesday.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

I zip up my coat and walk out in to the snowstorm, the flashing heart necklace thumping against my own heart.

Image may contain: outdoor and text

Image may contain: Kira Popescu, smiling, standing and hat

 

 

Book Review : To Siri with Love

This is a memoir written in a series of essays by the mother (Judith Newman) of an autistic teenage boy (Gus). The overall theme of it is the boy learning to connect with machines such as Siri and trains in a way he’s had trouble connecting with humans and that in turn leading to improved connections with human beings. This is a memoir that has generated a lot of controversy, as many people are disgusted by the way this woman writes about her son and autistic people in general.

Let me start out by admitting a couple of things that may get me crucified in the autism advocacy community: I bought this book and there are aspects of it I appreciated.

I was aware of the #boycotttosiri movement and at first I didn’t want to give money towards the book so I read it when I went to the bookstore but eventually I lost patience and purchased it on my Kindle.

I liked that this book gave a counterpoint to the narrative that technology is destroying society and relationships. I don’t use Siri but I’ve found other aspects of technology such as Facebook to be helpful to me when it comes to forging relationships.

It was interesting to me that Gus was initially diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disability. That is my official diagnosis. Although only a sentence is devoted to it, exposure in a high profile work may at least make people aware that it’s a deficit in processing nonverbal information (and not an inability to talk, as is often assumed.)

Thanks to this book I learned about some new autism programs that have been developed or are in the process of being developed in my own home state.  There’s a bookstore in New Jersey that only employs people on the autism spectrum and Rutgers is developing an autism living community.

I laughed a few times because the author says some funny things.

That being said, none of the positive aspects of this book are enough to redeem it in my eyes in the face of all the things I find wrong with it. I agree with the criticism leveled at it by the autism advocacy community. I won’t go so far as to say this woman doesn’t love her son, as some have but I will say she writes about him in a disrespectful manner. The overall tone of this book is distasteful and off putting to say the least.

The tone is along the lines of “I’ve suffered this horrible tragedy but I’m not going to let it get me down. Let me tell you how I’ve managed to persevere in the face of this tragedy through dark humor and wit poking fun at the tragedy.” This kind of tone is okay if you’re talking about your cancer diagnosis, your failed marriage or your tornado-ravaged house. It’s not okay when you’re talking about your autistic child.

Let’s start with the passage that has garnered the most outrage: The one where she talks about how she’s going to sterilize Gus because she doesn’t think he’ll be a good parent. She asks “How do I talk about this without sounding like a eugenicist?” You can’t because what you’re talking about is eugenics.  You shouldn’t decide that someone will be a bad parent as an adult based on what they’re like at age thirteen. Actually YOU shouldn’t be deciding whether or not someone else reproduces at all. That’s a decision they should make for themselves

She says that when she envisions Gus having sex she envisions a Benny Hill tune playing in the background and that can’t end well. I don’t know who Benny Hill is so I can’t find that joke funny anyway but it’s especially unfunny that she makes a joke like that at the expense of her son.

Really, the whole book is at her son’s expense. She invades his privacy, makes all kind of embarrassing comments about him and reveals all kinds of embarrassing details about him without his consent. She expresses the belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment, which would explain why she had no qualms about writing a book like this about her son, when I’m sure she would have been humiliated had her own mother written such a book about her.

This belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment is erroneous, dangerous and dehumanizing, as are the beliefs she expresses that autistic people can’t feel empathy and have no theory of mind. And the part where she wonders if Gus thinks? I thought my eyes would roll out of my head.

As if commenting on her desire to sterilize her son and on the soundtrack to his sex life weren’t bad enough, she also says that she can’t imagine any girl finding him interesting and complains throughout the book about how uninteresting she herself finds him. You know what?  Given the choice between spending a day with Judith Newman and spending a day with Gus, I would choose Gus, no question.  People who have autism or some other disability, who have atypical interests, behaviors, or speech patterns can be good friends and good lovers. Interesting is in the eye of the beholder.

In case you can’t tell, I don’t like Judith Newman very much. She comes across as selfish, entitled and judgmental. She feels entitled to pass judgement on issues she hasn’t got a clue about. When reflecting back on childhood classmates of hers who were bullied and who she assumes were autistic, she criticizes their parents for sending them to a mainstream school where they would be known as a retard. She has no idea what options were available to those parents or why they made the choices they did. Some special needs kids are better off in special schools but they shouldn’t automatically be sent there for fears of bullying in the mainstream.  If they do end up being bullied maybe it’s the behavior of the bullies that should be criticized, rather than the behavior of the parents.

When speculating on the reasons behind the rise of the incidence of autism, she suggests that people with autistic traits who in previous times would have been unable to find mates are now reproducing and she adds in “Thanks, Tinder!” That’s disturbing in the same way wanting to sterilize her son is disturbing. At least she didn’t say “Thanks, Obama”?

When discussing autistic students at Cambridge objecting to research being done in to pre-natal genetic testing for autism, on the grounds that it would lead to eugenics, Newman says that it is not the place of the autistic people who attend Cambridge University  to speak for the autistic people who are sitting alone in their rooms twirling objects.

First of all, if pre-natal testing for autism ever becomes possible, I seriously doubt it will be possible to tell if an autistic fetus will end up attending Cambridge or sitting alone in their room twirling an object. Second of all, can we please stop acting like autistic people who attend Cambridge and autistic people who sit alone in their room twirling objects are mutually exclusive categories, as if there can never be any overlap between the two? I didn’t attend Cambridge but I did attend university and do you know how much time I’ve spent sitting alone in my room twirling rubber bands? At least as much time as I’ve spent attending university.

She reveals that she and her husband (who she thinks is on the autism spectrum) are happily married but have always lived in separate apartments. That seemed strange to me but I can’t blame her husband for not wanting to live with her. She sounds insufferable.

Her reaction to criticism of her book did nothing to improve my impression of her. In response to accusations that the book is damaging to autistic people she said “I didn’t write it for them.” Sounds like she could use some lessons in empathy and theory of mind.

When she heard that people who didn’t appear to have read the book were leaving one star reviews of it on Amazon, she tried to get them taken down. Suck it up, Buttercup. You put your writing out there and people are free to criticize it. People leave reviews of books they haven’t read or finished all the time and proof of purchase has never been required. She claims that those people who are objecting to quotes from her book don’t understand them because they haven’t read them in context. Well, I have read them in context and it doesn’t make them any better. I’m sure if those people read your book, they would be more horrified, not less.

Within the autism community there’s a big divide between autistic adults who are deemed to be high functioning and parents of autistic children who are deemed to be low functioning, mainly over the issues of wanting a cure for autism and how those parents talk about their children. I feel like I’m more sympathetic to parents of autistic children than most but I still draw the line somewhere and Judith Newman crossed it.

Still, I’m glad I read this book. In addition to the good aspects of it I mentioned before it’s inspired me to start working on a story of my own of a similar nature ( I got the original idea for it from Life, Animated, another memoir written by the parent of an autistic boy that has a similar theme to To Siri with Love.) I’m not rich or famous like Judith Newman is (it’s a shame that it’s usually only the people with power, prestige and connections who get their voices heard) so my story won’t be as widely read or acclaimed as hers is but it also won’t be as widely criticized. I’ll try to write about autism in a more accurate and sensitive manner than she did.

Confess

via Daily Prompt: Confess

I must confess that even though I hate it when people claim that someone is too high functioning to be autistic or not autistic enough to count or truly suffer, I am a perpetrator/victim of that kind of thing myself, at least in my own head.

I don’t feel comfortable saying that I’m autistic or have autism. Instead I say I’m on the autism spectrum. What essentially is the difference between being on the autism spectrum and having autism or being autistic? I’m not sure that there is one but somehow saying I’m on the autism spectrum feels safer and more appropriate.

Maybe if I emphasize that autism exists on a spectrum, I’ll protect myself from the judgments and accusations of others. Maybe they’ll realize that autism doesn’t just encompass people who are intellectually impaired, have limited use of language and are smearing feces but people like me who are able to express themselves eloquently, go to college and pass for neurotypical. Maybe I won’t get told that I don’t seem autistic or that it’s impossible for me to have autism.

Maybe if I emphasize that autism exists on a spectrum it will be understood that every autistic person is different, that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Maybe I won’t be compared to other autistic people, maybe I won’t be told I’m using autism as an excuse.

But if I’m being honest those kinds of judgments and accusations aren’t just coming from other people but from me. They’re directed towards myself and towards others. I don’t voice such opinions about myself very often and I rarely voice such opinions about others on the autism spectrum but they exist in my head. They’re often fleeting thoughts that I challenge, that I push away and that I’m ashamed of but they exist nonetheless.

For as long as I can remember I’ve felt that I was somehow different from most other people and not in the ‘everyone’s special and unique” kind of way. I knew that I had some kind of disability, that I was at some kind of disadvantage, that I was somehow wired differently. Everyone who got to know me realized this but for my entire childhood no one considered that I could be autistic and it never crossed my mind that I could be autistic either.

In those days the general views and perceptions of autism were pretty narrow. Autistic kids were only those kids who didn’t talk, didn’t make eye contact and were entirely off in their own world. There was no way a child who was as verbal and eloquent as I was could be autistic.

Even though the perceptions, classifications and diagnostic criteria have changed since I was a child, even though today plenty of people who express themselves eloquently proudly (or not so proudly) call themselves autistic, I still have trouble shaking the original stereotypical perception of the autistic person. It’s ingrained in my mind and it’s a person that isn’t me. “I’m autistic”, “I have autism”-when I try to make those words flow from my tongue or my fingers I feel like I’m wearing a coat that doesn’t belong to me and I want to take it off.

Logically I really disagree with the notion that ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’  autistic people are so fundamentally different that they have no common ground and should not advocate for one another, that high functioning autistic people never suffer in the way that low functioning autistic people do ( and I have issues with the high functioning and low functioning labels existing in the first place.) I will readily and vociferously argue against anyone who holds such a viewpoint.

And yet… there’s a part of me that feels that viewpoint is right and that I don’t have the right to share the label of autism with someone who is unable to speak, that I haven’t experienced life or suffering in a way that’s comparable to how they’ve experienced it.

I’ve experienced that feeling in the opposite direction too. There have been times when I’ve read the blogs of people who call themselves autistic and thought “Fuck you! How dare you call yourself autistic and claim that you’ve suffered as a result of your autism! You’re not as disabled as I am! You have a job, a partner and kids! I can only dream of having those things!”

The fact that I’ve experienced that thought in both directions-that I’ve felt that I’ve suffered both so much less and so much more than other people who are labeled autistic is perhaps a good argument for why we shouldn’t try to put autistic suffering or any suffering for that matter on some kind of ladder or hierarchy.

Today my mom’s friend told my mother that a friend of hers had a six-year-old grandson that was diagnosed with autism. She said that he flaps and she remembered that I flapped as a child too. A hint, a suggestion, a validation that other people see me as autistic, perhaps a nudge towards feeling comfortable thinking of and referring to myself as autistic.

My mother informed her friend that I still flap. There was a moment of awkward silence on the other end of the phone.

It was a moment where I could have either laughed or cried. I chose to laugh.

 

Please don’t talk about me like I’m not there

“Is she autistic?” the woman asked my mom’s friend as I walked by.  I suspected she was talking about me but I held out some small hope that she wasn’t.  When my mom’s friend started to reply “She’s my friend Cathy’s daughter and she- ” all doubt was removed. I didn’t hear the rest of what she said because I left the room. I had no desire to listen to  people discussing me and my diagnosis right in front of me as if I couldn’t hear or understand them. If they were going to talk about me as if I wasn’t in the room, then I was going to leave the room. I’m lucky that I had the ability to make an exit.

I’m not sure what tipped this woman off. Maybe my mom’s friend had been talking to her about me. Maybe it was my pacing and flapping that did it. The fact that she hadn’t heard me speak probably heightened her perception of me as seriously disabled. People who hear me speak or read my writing first tend to be surprised to find out that I’m disabled in any way. People who see me pacing and flapping first tend to be surprised to hear me speaking in complete sentences.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I’ve had people respond to my flapping, pacing and stereotyped movements by asking another adult who’s with me why I’m doing that and if they’re watching me. They ask the other person that question when I’m within earshot and eyesight. I know this kind of thing happens to other disabled people too. This latest incident happened when I was on vacation. No one ever gets a vacation from their disability. It’s with you 24/7.

Too many people seem to think being autistic or being developmentally or physically disabled in some way is synonymous with being deaf or unable to understand verbal communication. When that belief causes them to talk about me as if I’m not there it makes me feel invisible, inferior and dehumanized. It is rude, insensitive and inconsiderate.

I suppose I could have let that woman know that I heard her and understood what she said. I suppose I could have told her she’d hurt my feelings. That may have challenged the notions she had about me and made her think twice about saying something like that in front of someone else she thought was autistic but it would have been embarrassing for all three of us. I prefer to avoid confrontations with strangers whenever possible.

People with special needs, disabilities or differences are by definition different from ‘typical’ people and require some special treatment but they are people as much as anyone else is. There are some needs, characteristics and feelings that are universal across all humanity.

Regardless of their age, status, neurotype, ability or disability, people universally want to be treated with respect. They want to feel heard and seen by others, to be accepted for who they are, to know that they matter.

There are exceptions to every rule and we aren’t always going to know the right way to deal with everyone but when it comes to human interaction the most categorical and fail-safe rule of all is the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you wouldn’t want someone talking about you as if you weren’t there when you’re fully present, don’t do that to anyone else.

When Online is out of Line: The Shit Hits the Fan

Being on that board became like navigating a minefield for me. I knew that I could cause an explosion at any time but I did not know how or when it would happen, nor did I know how to avoid stepping on an explosive device. Sometimes my attempts to sidestep the explosives would steer me right towards them.

The post I made that ended up triggering a big explosion was about about a controversial issue in the news and any opinion expressed about it did have the possibility of being controversial. I had recently been jumped on for the opinion I expressed about another issue in the news. Therefore when I posted about the debate over removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton University, I did not take a firm stance on the issue. I posted the link and summarized what was going on. If other people just posted a summary of a news story it was fine but since I was held to a different standard, in the past I’d been jumped on for just providing a summary of a news item and told that I was not getting a discussion going. A mod had told me to add discussion questions to my posts so I did that.

If anyone on that board enjoyed greater popularity and immunity than Marcia did, it was a member called Firecracker. I liked her better than Marcia because unlike Marcia she was nice to me sometimes and she was funny but like Marcia she’s extremely arrogant and abrasive. Anyway, she responded to me by saying “For the umpteenth time you’ve given us a list of questions to answer without answering them yourself.”

This was the setting for a perfect storm because it provided an opportunity to criticize me and to agree with Firecracker. Those were the things the board loved doing best. A huge dogpile on me commenced. I was told that I put forth juvenile essay questions and was accused of not reading the links I posted, of experiencing a decline in my mental abilities and of taking the opinions I did post on that board from other boards. It was said that I was ruining the board and causing people to leave.

I got defensive. I pointed out that I was just doing what I’d been asked to do, that I was on the autism spectrum and had a different communication style than some people and that with some people I just couldn’t win, no matter what I did.

The usual suspects who I’ve already mentioned in previous blog posts attacked me as did a bunch of other people. Unsurprisingly Marcia was the person who attacked me in the most vicious manner.  She said:

“You never have an original comment, a thought of your own or anything to add to the post. Just essay questions. It’s as if you depend on the board to form your opinions. That’s our job as far as your’re concerned.

I don’t know what’s happened to change you but wow, you aren’t the person who posted as Kira in the early years. Maybe you aren’t that person?I know many people on the autism spectrum and they don’t use it as an excuse for trollish behavior.

This is the Wikipedia definition of troll: ‘In internet slang a troll  is a person who sows discord on the internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion,often for the troll’s amusement’. This definition describes Kira to a tee.  We are losing valuable members because of Kira and the situation needs to be stopped.”

I was quite tempted to bust out the Wikipedia definition of a certain other five letter word that describes Marcia to a tee but instead I said that no, that definition of troll did not describe me. If it described anyone it described the people who derailed on topic-discussions by attacking me in an inflammatory manner in order to provoke me in to an emotional response.

Marcia’s brilliant response to that?  “Whatevs”

I also told her that she”d stooped really low. She replied that speaking the truth wasn’t low, she saw no way I wasn’t deliberately trying to antagonize people, so therefore my behavior must be deliberate.

A further example of how incredibly arrogant and narrow minded Marcia is. She thinks that her way of seeing things is the only correct way of seeing things and that whatever she thinks is the ultimate truth. Thank God that’s not actually the case because I wouldn’t want to live in the world according to Marcia. I would say that her deficits in empathy and critical thinking skills hinder her perception abilities.

When it comes to being inflammatory you can’t get much more inflammatory than what Marcia said. She had accused me of being a troll, of lying about my identity and of using autism as an excuse.

Another ‘interesting’ idea that Marcia had expressed in the past was that kids who are diagnosed with autism these days are ‘just a bit quirky’ and that parents are too eager to get them a diagnosis, rather than just accept that their kid is weird and move on. She went on to say that people with autism are capable of learning appropriate social behavior. I claimed to have been to college so obviously I was capable of learning and the fact that I chose not to was entirely on me.Obviously Marcia isn’t very well informed about autism or about learning for that matter, which is sad, since she claims to be a teacher.

She also said I told bizarre stories and needed serious help at best. I replied that she needed some some serious help herself as she also seemed to have quite a bit of trouble behaving in a socially appropriate manner. Baseless, cruel personal attacks are not socially appropriate.

When I told her she was out of line she replied “That is for the mods to decide, not you” which I imagine was her way of taunting me by reminding me that the mods favored her and let her off the hook for bad behavior.

There were also people who defended me, who stuck up for me, who expressed concern that I was being bullied. They said the people who were attacking me were the ones who were behaving badly and disrupting the forum, that if anyone else had started a thread with the exact same wording they wouldn’t have objected. They pointed out that if those people who were attacking me didn’t like the format of my posts or the questions I asked they were free to just ignore the questions and say what they wanted about the topics.

Purple Cat and a few other people claimed they were unable to respond to threads I started because even when they were originally interested in the topic and wanted to post about it themselves they were just so put off by the tone of my posts, which were formulaic and showed I didn’t really care about the topic, that I was just posting for the sake of posting and spamming the board.

I had to call bullshit on that. Something told me that those people never had any intention of starting threads about the topics I chose and that they didn’t find themselves unable to even comment on the topic because of the way I worded my posts. The board had been in a state of  decline for a while and not many people posted topics on a regular basis, especially not the people who criticized me and it wasn’t like I snatched up every single topic the second it became available either. Something also told me that those people who were demanding I share my opinion weren’t doing so because they just had so much respect for me and were dying to hear what I thought. They were just being disingenuous and picking on me for the sake of picking on me. I said as much.

If you remember Purple Cat from a previous blog you’ll remember that she had no problem directly accusing someone else of lying about their life with no evidence to back it up. She’d also had no problem accusing me of lying before and said that Marcia was not out of line after she’d suggested that a different person had been using my account and I’d been lying about my life stories. Yet Purple Cat just couldn’t handle me saying I thought some people were being disingenuous with their claims, said I had no right to call her a liar with no evidence.

Cowgirl piped up to say that being on the autism spectrum did not give me an excuse to be so petulant and someone else shot back “Oh please, Kira is not the petulant one here. Two different threads now you’ve come in solely to insult her. This really is starting to look like bullying.”

Then there were those who wanted to discuss the actual topic of the thread and requested that the talk about me be moved to another thread but it was agreed that a thread devoted to picking me apart would be a terrible idea and would be beyond stupid and hurtful to me.

The person who summed it all up best was a member called LionHeart. She said:

“Well, I was impressed that we had an 8 page thread about Woodrow Wilson. Then I come in to see that it’s a page about Woodrow Wilson and 7 pages about Kira’s posting style. I should have known.

Anyway, apparently I’m one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t feel like throwing myself off a tall building whenever I open a thread that Kira starts. I actually think she has tried to heed others’ criticism of her posting style but as soon as she fixes one “defect” people move on to the next one. Then they pounce when she gets defensive. That to me is a lot more off putting than anything Kira posts.

I will note that the pregnancy and parenting forum, where Kira virtually never starts threads is deader than a door nail. Seems to me that would be a nice safe place for people to start threads without fear that Kira was BEATING them to it with her mandatory essay questions. Yet that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Do I honestly think Kira’s posting is kind of frenetic and taking up an unhealthy place in her life? Probably. We all know enough about Kira’s life that that’s not a wild leap and the reception she’s getting here can’t be doing her mental health any good. If I knew her in real life I would kindly take her aside and say ‘Dear, these friends, they are not good for you. Not because they are right about you but because they are not good for you. It may be time to broaden your horizons.’

I’m very curious to hear what the mods have to say about this. It’s clear to me that Kira is breaking no board rules, not even close. I don’t think most of the people criticizing her are breaking any rules either so I guess unless something changes we’ll just sink down in to this sewage together.”

I too was curious to hear what the moderators had to say about this.

Daily Prompt: Mystery

via Daily Prompt: Mystery

To many people I am a mystery. From an early age I was a mystery to my own parents. They tried very hard to solve me. As the detective, the chief witness, the prosecutor and the defense in my case, my mother searched for clues, she did her investigations, she questioned the suspects and she presented the evidence to the professionals. She asked for their help in solving the mystery of me.

I was a difficult case to crack.  There were times when it seemed the mystery of me was close to being solved and times when professionals declared they had solved the mystery but in the end the evidence just didn’t fit together to form a satisfying conclusion.  The poor fine motor and visual spatial skills were offset by the advanced verbal skills. My disinterest in my peers and my apparent inability to form relationships with them were contradicted by the warm, affectionate relationships I had with my family. My failure to pay attention to instructions seemed at odds with my great memory for certain details.  My hand flapping, my failure to make eye contact, my talking to myself, made me seem as though I was off in another world but I could also express myself in a way that showed I was engaged in this world.

My mother was the chief witness in my case but there were other witnesses as well-my other family members, my peers, my teachers, my babysitters. Some of them had convicted me of various crimes in their minds- Of being rude, mean, lazy, indifferent or spoiled-those were the most obvious answers to the mystery of me.  Yet my mom suspected that perhaps I was not guilty of those crimes by reason of disability. The type of disability remained a mystery.

I was sometimes called forth to testify in my own case and solve my own mystery but I remained a mystery even to myself and other people were a mystery to me. I could not tell you why I had no friends or why I flapped my hands. It was a mystery to me why other people did not flap their hands, how they managed to get through life without feeling the urge to do something that was so intrinsic to my being.  It was a mystery to me how my peers seemed to make friends as easily and naturally as I flapped my hands, while I remained friendless. I did not know what I was doing wrong or how I could make things right.

Finally, when I was twelve a doctor seemed to solve the mystery of me. He came up with a diagnosis for me that made sense and matched up with the majority of my symptoms. It was a a little known or recognized diagnosis so it’s no wonder the mystery took so long to solve.

Yet the mystery of me had not been fully solved and my case was far from closed. It was a mystery what had caused my diagnosis and what could be done to help me, why some with my diagnosis fared better than me and others fared worse. Then there were the symptoms of mine that didn’t seem to be accounted for by my diagnosis. Perhaps another diagnosis would fit me better but then there were criteria for that diagnosis that didn’t seem to fit me.

The truth was my mom had given birth to a human being, not a diagnosis and not a mystery novel. My creation had involved the hands of fate, genetics and whatever other forces are out there. I had not been meticulously crafted in the mind of a writer with a clear introduction, plot line and conclusion. I’ve spent my whole life feeling like a square peg in a round hole and there’s no reason to believe any diagnosis could peg me perfectly. I’m a perfectly imperfect person who’s rough around the edges.

The mystery has continued throughout my life and continues to this day. When I started making friends it was a mystery to me why these people liked me so much because years of blame and low self esteem had made me suspect I was inherently unlikable. It was a mystery to me why I made such self destructive decisions. It’s a mystery to me why romantic relationships, employment and independence seem to come so naturally to other people but they just haven’t happened for me.  It’s a mystery whether they ever will happen for me.

It’s a mystery why I can easily tell you the name of the dog of that kid who sat in front of me in seventh grade math class but I can’t remember the password I created yesterday.  It’s a mystery why I take some things so literally and fail to pick up on things that others grasp naturally yet I’m also capable of thinking deeply and symbolically, of picking up on things that others fail to grasp.

It’s a mystery to many people why I flap, pace and jump, why I am the way I am. I can see the look of puzzlement on their faces. Sometimes they ask me about it but even though I’m good with words, it’s a mystery I don’t know how to explain to them.

Some mysteries are not meant to be unraveled or solved. They are meant to be accommodated, accepted and appreciated. I am such a mystery.

An atypical’s take on Atypical

I went in to the Netflix show Atypical prepared to hate it. I’d seen autistic people rip it apart online, the tone certain reviewers took when speaking about the show irritated me and the trailer did not seem very promising .

One of the criticisms of the show I heard from autistic people was that an autistic character was being played by an actor who is not autistic. There was a time when I would have said to myself “A neurotypical person playing an autistic person?  Have these people who are complaining about that never heard of something called ACTING?”, hardy har har har! However, I’ve since changed my tune.  Autistic people as a group tend to be marginalized.  They tend to be denied job opportunities because those job oppurtunities are catered to neurotypicals, not autistics. Therefore when a job opportunity comes up that is catered towards autistic people, it seems like a real shame to not give that job to someone who’s actually autistic.

Furthermore, I was irritated by the way in which a certain reviewer responded to that criticism. He said that such a criticism was shortsighted because an actor of Gilchrist’s caliber can do a tremendous job of humanizing a condition like autism. Wow, thanks for not no subtly implying that autistic people are not fully human. Thank goodness we have neurotypical actors to humanize our condition for us. There’s no way someone who’s actually autistic could have brought humanity to such a role!

Then there was the actor from the show who described Atypical as going deep in to the magical world of the mind of someone with autism. Once again, thanks for implying that autistic people aren’t quite human. Magical is an acceptable word to use when describing fairies, pixies or elves. It’s not an acceptable word to use when describing autistic people. If a magical carpet ride is what you’re after, maybe you should watch Aladdin instead.

And you know what? It really does grate on the nerves to see a neurotypical person talk about how challenging it is to play an autistic character on a TV show when you’ve faced the challenge of actually living with autism every single day of your life.

Then I watched the trailer and it was so centered on sex, romance and boobs, that I was afraid the show was basically going to be American Pie goes Autistic. It ended up having more heart than that though.

I was hooked from the beginning when it opened with Sam, the main character, sitting in front of his therapist twirling a rubber band. I do that all the time. There was also a scene toward the end that resonated with me. It involved Sam asking a restaurant for spaghetti with just butter on top. That’s one of my favorite dishes and I always have a hard time convincing waiters that it’s what I actually want.

There were various scenes throughout the series that I could relate to.  In general I’m not quite as literal minded or socially inappropriate as Sam is but I’ve certainly had my moments. I don’t have sensory issues to the degree that Sam and many people on the autism spectrum do but one of the sensory aversions I did have involved romantic contact.  Luckily, unlike with poor Sam, in my case, it didn’t result in me physically injuring anyone.

Overall I found the series funny and touching. There were several scenes that made me laugh and a few that warmed my heart. I heard complaints that this show was laughing at people with autism. I don’t approve of mocking or teasing an autistic person if they’re not laughing with you but the best advice I can give to anyone on the autism spectrum is to cultivate a sense of humor about yourself. A dark one if necessary because let’s face it, if you’re on the autism spectrum your life is probably going to be rather dark at times.  So rather than being devastated or humiliated by all those social blunders you make, once you’ve learned from them, laugh at them.  It will make a hard life that much easier. There’s a stereotype that autistic people don’t have senses of humor but it’s mostly just a stereotype. I’ve met some autistic people with great senses of humor.

Another complaint about the show was that it perpetuated stereotypes about autism. Yes, it does perpetuate stereotypes but let’s look at it for what it is-a fictional dramedy show. Is there anyone on a sitcom who doesn’t get stereotyped? I imagine the creators of this show did want to advocate for and spread awareness about autism but they also wanted their show to do well, requiring them to entertain a mostly neurotypical audience.

I think this show will help by spreading awareness of what is known as high functioning autism AKA autism that is accompanied by adequate or advanced verbal skills. Many people think of autism as only applying to those with limited verbal abilities, to the point that they won’t believe that people on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum are actually autistic. There have been shows that feature characters who have characteristics of high functioning autism but those shows have mostly shied away from using the A word.

This show highlights autism from the perspective of a straight white male and that frustrates autistic people in the more underrepresented groups. Autism varies highly from person to person, even among straight white males. It would be impossible for one character to show all the different facets of autism. That’s why I wish that instead of having Sam’s mom visit a support group for parents of autistic kids, we’d seen Sam visit a support group for autistic people. That way we would have gotten a more diverse perspective on the different people that are affected by autism and the different ways in which they are affected.

Moreover, I wish we’d learned more about the effect autism has on areas of Sam’s life aside from romance. Romance is very important in the lives of many people but it shouldn’t be the be all end all of anyone’s life whether they be neurotypical or autistic and it shouldn’t be the sole focus point of a show about autism.  It would have been nice if we’d learned more about how autism affects Sam academically, vocationally and in terms of platonic relationships.  He’s on the cusp of adulthood, which means he is experiencing a push towards independence. I would have liked to know what his plans are for the near future, whether they include college, a full time job or living away from his family. These are important, challenging issues for any young adult to navigate and they present special challenges to young adults on the autism spectrum.

More time could have been devoted to exploring these aspects of Sam’s life if less time had been devoted to the other characters. I get the importance of focusing on other characters but I don’t think we needed to know so much about the personal life of Sam’s psychologist or about his mother’s affair. I’ll admit that I laughed when Sam’s mother saw the word ‘slut’ on stop signs but the slut shaming was irritating and the whole affair storyline was awkward.

I guess the point of focusing so much on other characters is to reinforce the show’s message of “No one’s normal/everyone’s weird”.  The other characters certainly behave in bizarre ways at times, especially Sam’s girlfriend. The “No one’s normal” message can feel a little condescending and dismissive when used by a neurotypical person to comfort an autistic person because neurotypical abnormalities aren’t really comparable to autistic abnormalities in terms of the societal response they tend to garner. But if the intended message is that neurotypical people should stop judging autistic people for their differences because they’ve got their own shit and normal isn’t something to aspire to anyway, I can get on board with that.

Since the producers of this show didn’t hire an autistic actor, they could have at least consulted autistic people when doing their research but they mostly stuck to neurotypical autism experts and it shows. There’s a scene where Sam’s father gets reprimanded for using the term “autistic person” rather than “person with autism” in the parent support group. I wonder if the creators of this show realize that most people on the autism spectrum prefer “autistic person” and dislike “person with autism”.

Despite my criticisms of Atypical, I did end up genuinely enjoying a show I was fully prepared to hate watch. There’s much that could be improved upon and expanded on but that’s what Season 2 is for.