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When My Student Said 'I'm Glad I Have Autism'

This past semester, I have been a special education para in an elementary school. Let’s just say, no day has been ordinary. My students and I have had our good days, our silly days, and our “You’re not in trouble, but I’m gonna need you to rethink that action real quick” days. But as I look back at the last semester, I can honestly say I truly value the time I had with each of my students.

One particular young man, whom I will name “A” for privacy reasons, comes to mind when I think back. A has autism, and he was my special afternoon playmate, as I would always take him to our sensory break room during his math time. The other teachers and paras told me he would be a true joy, and my goodness, he was. Some days were better than others; some days we made up stories about Skittle land, what would happen if we jumped into video game worlds, and we always tried to come up with the scariest stories we could.

I’ll never forget our first true breakthrough, however. As I picked up A from class and started to take him to the break room, I could tell something wasn’t OK. After a few minutes in silence, he told me a new refrigerator was being installed in his house that day. A is not one who enjoys change, and it really bothered him, knowing his fridge would be different by the time he got home from school. We talked through the pros and cons of the change, and even imagined what we thought the new one would look like. It may sound silly to some perhaps, but to us, it was a truly meaningful conversation about a relevant issue in A’s life. From then on, we were pals. He was the highlight of my afternoon. His freckled smile and contagious giggle could light up anyone’s spirits. Sure, some days didn’t go so well in the break room. Sometimes we needed to spend some time in the “quiet cave” and just not talk to each other. But I think that was proof of the genuine friendship we had. All friends have rough patches, and we were the best of friends.

This was my last week as a para. I have accepted a position that is truly in my best interest for my career goals and could not pass up the opportunity. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt saying goodbye to A.

A few days ago, I was wearing my Autism Avenue T-shirt, and he asked me what it said. I read it to him, and his face lit up. “I have autism!” he exclaimed. I told him I knew that, and I bought the T-shirt because I absolutely love my friends with autism. His response is something I will never forget: “Well, I’m glad I have autism then.”

Yes, this is the moment I’m crying in a coffee shop, typing this story. Because I’m also glad A has autism. It’s the spice that makes him exactly who he is. The truth is, I can’t imagine him without it, and I’m beyond grateful he understands it is nothing to be ashamed of. The confidence in his voice made me know he would be OK without me around. And while I will miss watching him dance, watching him stare at the lights on the wall, or tell his stories… he will be OK. I didn’t have to tell him he’s unstoppable — he already knew. He just needed a friend to talk refrigerators, video games, and Skittles with, and I am beyond grateful for the small amount of time I got to be that person.

Image via Thinkstock.

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