Last Friday I subbed for the first time in a classroom for severely autistic kids. I want to say I was filled with compassion and felt like the work was meaningful, but mostly I just felt traumatized by the experience. These are children that will never be normal, that will always need help from others, that are far far far from anything resembling ‘normal.’ I felt for the parents that are filled with ambivalence for a child they both love and see as a burden. My heart was heavy. The day dragged, every little thing they did is an uphill challenge. Every single thing they did is painfully slow and difficult. It was exhausting to be around. I pitied them, found them to be pathetic, and felt ugly for feeling that way. I felt ashamed that I didn’t find the work meaningful and fun like the other women working in the classroom. I spent the weekend tormented by the experience and my thoughts and feelings.
Then I went back.
In the last 3 days I have spent in there I have been able to see these kids as more than their external behaviors. I have seen humor and subtly, frustration and anger. When they refer to autism as a spectrum, they are literally describing how unique each of the children are. Yes there are similarities, however each of the children presented a unique combination of interests, levels of interaction, intelligence and behaviors. Once I was no longer shocked by the strange sounds and movements they make and do, they became fascinating to me.
I need to understand to connect. And initially it was all so foreign, loud, strange, intrusive, that I just couldn’t process it. But it’s amazing how the strangest things can become normalized just by being exposed to it for a while. And just like that the noises they made, the arm waving and flapping, the rocking and body ticks, all faded into the background scenery, and I was able to really see them, who they are on the inside. The intelligence trapped inside a body that won’t cooperate. I also judged the program that is designed to have them restrict themselves in order to make the socially ‘normal’ feel more comfortable. I don’t have a background in any of this. And my experience amounts to a book I read (partially written by a severely autistic girl), some articles, and exactly 4 days in a classroom. But I have to wonder if all the things we were making them do was really for their benefit, or ours.
I started to really care about them, feel sad when they were sad, and feel joy when they experienced it. I started to bond, and then it ended – such is the experience of a substitute. And next week I go back to a classroom full of ‘normal’ kids. The teacher asked if I wanted to come back next time my school is on break. I’m actually considering it. I prefer to help students academically. I love watching them ‘get it.’ I feel joy when I help them understand. I know that’s my calling, my bliss, what feeds my light. And yet, this hidden world was a fascinating break from the daily grind, the rushing to and from minutia, the annoyances at mundane discomforts we take for granted. It has clarified and strengthened my gratitude for existence. I am taking them back into the rest of my life, carrying them in my heart, incorporating them into the full human experience of the world around me.
I knew that children like this existed, I just didn’t think about it in depth. I didn’t want to imagine the day by day and minute by minute struggles. I didn’t want to care. When I have seen them out in the community, I have felt uncomfortable and pity. But not anymore. I will never reduce them again. My eyes are open.