Monday, September 03, 2007

Back to school

I first met "Sarah" (age 12) last fall when her family moved into the building down the street. This summer we continued our acquaintance and found that we "click" (said her mom). I've since discovered Estee's comment: I agree that a mentor is not something you "get" artificially. I'm not Sarah's mentor in a formal sense, though this is something her family mentioned and we discussed.

In the rush to function in the "adult" world often I forget about the kids. Not because we don't get along (we always have) and not because kids aren't everywhere in the autism arena, but because I have no current connection in the real world. That's now been corrected. I learned there are a lot of kids in the building at the end of the street. By now the toys I bought (because none of them had any) are well used, including a dozen or so jet balls that disappeared, one by one, into the ether.

The adults joined in (frisbee, soccer) and I discovered that developmental disabilities are not uncommon, at least in this spontaneous assembly of neighbours. Unfortunately the majority in this group routinely use racist, homophobic, etc., comments, comments the kids repeat. I challenged the hateful remarks ("Did you just use the 'N' word?") but realized I'm only one within a local, self-reinforcing culture.

Sarah coined her own words, "bouncy baw" (jet ball), "freefree" (freezie), which were also contagious even among the adults, the same adults who before had mocked Sarah's language and 'stupidity'. When not beaten down and hanging her head, Sarah isn't stupid. She showed this many times, using 'adult' combinations of short sentences and head gestures - gestures more sophisticated than many I'd seen among the adults.

One visitor, a superintendent (with a wife and kids), described his continuing impulse control issues. An hour or so later he was unloading on Sarah for her impulsive behaviour. I thought he could have used their common difficulty to connect with Sarah, to say it's okay I struggle with that too and look, I grew up and I'm doing okay... he didn't. I explained to Sarah that he has the same issue and she immediately stopped crying and got a kind of "ohhhhh" look on her face.

The adults deny and the kids carry the burden.

Now they're going back to school and I wonder what my next step will be. Here are three things the kids (both disabled and not) refreshed for me:

1. All children should have a childhood.
2. Successful completion of a project is less important than the child's self-concept.
3. Parents (and mentors, educators, professionals) are important for two reasons (among many others): the good they can do, and the damage they can do.

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