Posted in Autistic Identity, Parenting, School governance, School Leadership

Autistics Make GREAT Moms

This post should be about how much I am insightful about my child’s needs, judging from the title.  And I believe I am good at that sort of thing.  However, this post is not that.  Instead, because I was asked if I was another person’s mother multiple times yesterday, I thought this would be far more interesting to talk about, given the current Autistic community speaking out about being great parents in the wake of #BoycottToSiri.

As the setup to this story, I have a lone 8th grader.  He’s pretty amazing, if I do say so myself, and part of why he’s amazing is how much progress he’s made in the last year and a bit since I came to this school.  He used to be very silent, especially around adults, and took a very long time to read.  His work was adequate at best and he seemed to be behind grade level.

This year, he’s at grade level and can explain things better than most 8th graders in other schools (since we have no basis for comparison here, we have to look elsewhere; this is probably a good thing and less stressful for him anyway).

Because we have a large developmental gap between him and my next youngest student who fits in best with the 4th/5th graders, he likes to work in the office.  This works out fine because 1) we get another person to answer the doorbell, 2) I can teach him in between my work, if he needs it, which frees up the one-room schoolhouse, and 3) we can, when we’re both stressed play Uno or Yu-Gui-Oh, or what have you.  He’s seemed to move along even faster, academically, since now he can choose the order he does things in (being mindful about what time I have that’s free to teach), and he still joins the rest of the class for meals, gym, and art.  He even DIRECTS gym now, teaching the other kids games that country school kids used to play years ago like “Ghosts in the graveyard.”  He learned about this game online.

So, this is my 8th grader, and because there IS such a gap between him and the others, and because he’s going to have learned as much as he can, being in the office with us, he wants to go to another school next year, and we found a charter that is project-based and quite small, with lots of quirky students he should fit in great with.

SO…here’s the story.

At the very beginning of the year, the new secretary asked if this student was my son.  We both laughed very, very hard.  He is not; he’s just good at banter and quick on the uptake, so we can make jokes together pretty well.  This became the standard joke at school.

Yesterday, when we went to the new school for next year and he presented his sample project, the two women who met us decided I was mom.  I was not.  Then, the students who walked past us when he was talking with another student, decided I was mom, and seemed stunned to learn that I was the principal.  The icing on the cake was a parishioner who came into the office, told me the boy looked like his grandson, then said, “Someone told me you’re his mom.”  Seriously, parish?

Then I thought about why that was and what it meant.

Principals ordinarily do not help families to arrange school visits for their students; they leave that up to mom and dad.  Now, this student has a great set of parents who love him very, very much.  He has a not-so-great relationship with his dad, and due to things from the past that had nothing to do with this student himself, he’s got a strained relationship with dad.  BUT both mom and dad are loving and caring NOW, so whatever that was with dad was in the past in actuality, and dad (it’s clear) loves him very much.  So this isn’t a “I don’t have a parent who loves me,” thing.  He does, and they both make time for him within their work schedules.  It’s just during the day, when they’re working that he doesn’t see them, and like most teens, he’s okay with that.

Regardless, normally we educators foist school decisions onto parents.  This would be all well and good, but 1) they’d never heard of charter schools before and assumed there would be tuition, and maybe it would be too much and 2) even if they could, it would have been hard to align their schedules to have someone drop him off for this project/visit and pick him up.  They are the working poor.  Taking time off work can be rough.

So, I stepped in.  I researched alternatives, took the student to an initial visit to the school, he talked it over with this parents, mom came in for a meeting of explanation, then it was back to me to help with the project he was assigned to do, and to take him to the school to present it and visit.

This happened during the second visit, when my student presented a project and could chat with the students a little.

I asked this student at various times during this visit if I could leave him.  First, when I explained the purpose of the visit, and that he’d be safe.  He explained that he didn’t really know anyone, so he’d rather I stayed.  Okay, so I made sure I could stay.

When my student was going to shadow one of the school’s students, I looked at him, and didn’t get up.  He gave me “a look.”  I said, “I should follow?” to give him an out.  He said, “Yes.”  I did.

I sat near, but not too near, so he could have a natural interaction, and as the conversation proceeded he seemed to get along great with the teens around him.  I got to have a chat with a few teachers, many of whom have their kids in Catholic schools and I wanted to see their thoughts on a Catholic high school since, well, we’re always thinking about 9-12th grade so we don’t have to send our kids away.  They were positive.

I digress.

When I think about yesterday, I think the difference between me and other principals is that I do pay very close attention to my students and what they need.  Because I’m so attuned, I can listen to what they say and take it seriously or I can listen to what they don’t say, and gauge reactions.  This is not something that is typically done in schools.  But mostly, I make the time to do what they need me to do because it’s important.

But in light of #BoycottToSiri, I realized, then, that this is how I know I’m a good mother: every mother thinks they’re a great mom to their own kids, and it’s really hard to gauge if it’s true or not.  The general public thinks that this boy is my son because of how I care for him and make sure his needs are met, spoken or unspoken.  And this is not my son, and this student has a great mom already, so he’s not looking for a “mom substitute.”  This felt like validation.

I am a good parent and a phenomenal principal, and that’s because I really do care for my students.  As an Autistic, who might have trouble having her own non-verbals “read” by others, that this was all clear to other people, was fascinating.

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