02 February 2008

Back to School....Oh, the Euphoria!

This has been a seriously good week. I had a big win on Monday; I taught my son Ben how to tie his shoes! It wasn't the first time I'd tried to teach him, but it was the first time he came anywhere near to getting it. It turned out that it was me that had to change in order for him to understand.

Both boys have grown over the holidays. They play hard, and sleep longer, and eat like industrial furnaces. Suddenly they both have much larger feet, and it's time to get them new shoes. Linus hates shoes, but will grudgingly wear sandals. For Ben we favor a leather walking shoe, and right up to size 5 they come with velcro closures. I admit I've embraced the velcro, which I otherwise don't much like, for the miracle it is with kids like mine. Alas, this year his barleycorns crossed the manufacturers line. No more velcro...I was obliged to buy shoes with laces.

I was nervous about this, but I resolved to sit with him, with my own similar shoes on, and help him master the art. It wouldn't do to be in grade six and not be able to put his own shoes on. I was taught the skill by my father, somewhere around grade one or two. I do remember the afternoon he patiently demonstrated the 'half-hitch, make a loop, pull the other lace around' method. I remember it was tricky, but I did learn it, and have always tied that way ever since.

Ben kept getting lost after the first loop. There were too many steps before you reached the prize. He couldn't see which strand of lace he should be pulling though. He was instantly frustrated, and embarrassed, and this triggered his habitual obstinance.

Then he asked me to draw him some pictures of the steps. It was about then that Temple Grandin came to mind. Dr. Grandin is a fascinating author and speaker. Autistic herself, she has a unique insight into the condition and the eloquence to describe her experience. One point that she make that has stuck with me is that autistic people are visual thinkers. They think in pictures.

I began to search online for pictures of how to tie shoelaces.

I found several helpful pages, and one that showed different methods. I realized that the way I'd been taught was too complicated for Ben, and a different procedure might be easier. I chose the two loops, or bunny ears method; a half hitch, make two loops and tie them in a half hitch also. Voila! I printed out the pictures, and we sat down again. I showed Ben how to do it a couple of times, and then he said he wanted to take the illustrations into his room and practice alone. He came out ten minutes later, grinning from ear to ear with his shoes perfectly tied. Everybody wins!

The next day, the school year began, which it does here in Australia at the end of January. All the little sweethearts, who look like babies to me, start grade one in their bright new uniforms. The public schools opened their doors on Tuesday the 29th this year, whereas the Autism Queensland school opted to start the following day. In the past, the long summer holiday has seemed so much like a prison sentence for all of us; me for obvious reasons, but also the boys, who get bored and more prone to meltdown without the routine. This time it was all so much better that (I can't even believe this) I offered Ben the choice of an extra day at home. Normally he and his brother would be at AQ on Tuesdays, so for the sake of avoiding confusion I was suggesting that they start on the Wednesday.

To my surprise, Ben was adamant! Given a choice, he chose school. I couldn't possibly argue with that, could I? I packed up their new lunch boxes and assembled all of the stationery into Brendan's new bag, a large grown-up boy back pack with optional wheels because he needs to carry many things between his two schools. I laid out uniforms and shoes.

Ben was up, showered, combed and dressed by 6:30 am. With his shoes proudly tied. I cautioned him not to announce it, in his fashion, to everyone at the school. I told him he could tell his special unit teacher, but not the scary big boys in grade six and seven. Ben is vulnerable to bullying. He can't see malevolence coming, nor understand that people frequently say what they don't mean. Sarcasm is utterly lost on him. Anyway, he's off with the big boys now, and could be targeted for a kicking. That actually happened last year, and so now the teachers are keeping an eye on him, as well as a few other like him.

So I didn't burn rubber skidding to a halt while dropping him off, a fond ream that has sustained me through many long, hot, holiday weeks. Instead, I went with him and helped him find his class. We walked to the far side of the campus, to the senior school block. The scary , 'Lord of the Flies' block. I had done some substitute teacher assistant work there last year. For an hour my task was to supervise, single handedly, several hundred big kids who'd been told to stay off the stacked tumbling mats left out by the gym instructor. Of course they ran and jumped and threw themselves and each other onto the mats. I had no defense against this; as soon as I'd cleared one pile of tangled big boys, the one behind my turned back would erupt. I didn't know any of their names, which is the only weapon a teacher has. It meant I couldn't write them up. One later teacher confided, "I try not to see anything that I absolutely don't have to." So, like, watching for a kid getting the stuffing knocked out of him or her, but not most minor idiocies. On the day of the tumbling mats, though, the kids all got overexcited and loud. It drew attention, which could only reflect badly on me. A burly custodian came to my rescue, shouting at some of the offenders by name. He plucked two of them out of the crowd and hauled them away to the office. I felt simultaneously grateful and humiliated, a blend of emotions that doesn't sit nicely. Naturally the remaining kids regarded me with scorn. I had less than no cred at that moment. Personally, I'd have settled for some pepper spray. When the bell rang I returned, badly shaken, to the much smaller children in the Special Ed unit. Some of them can be scary too, but they are smaller and fewer.

And Tuesday it was to this place that I escorted Ben, although I was the only one of us feeling apprehensive. He really is oblivious to how quirky he seems, and the snickers and stares of the normal boys, with whom Ben feels perfectly at ease right up until one of them kicks him. Luckily, I discovered that his teacher this year is a very capable man who taught Ben in grade three. He's brilliant with ASD kids, and boys in general. The Special Ed. teacher has been in conference with the class teacher, and Ben is to be removed from the isolated and barbarous senior area, going to the sanctuary of the Special Ed. unit for his meals and breaks. He's fine with that. He loves it there; it's air conditioned and there are computer games, and he's safe from bullying.

Because of that, I can feel as happy about Back to School as he is. I went shopping afterward, mainly for the novelty of walking around in a public space, free and unencumbered.

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