To the New Teacher of My Daughter on the Autism Spectrum
You may or may not be fed up of me within the next six months. You may think I’m “that parent” who frets unnecessarily. You might even think I’m a pain in the rear end. And you might not see the things I am trying to get you to see. But that is why I need you to really see.
I’m trusting you. I’m placing the learning and daily wellbeing of my child into your hands six hours a day, five days a week. I need you to see. I need you to understand that what some see as a “high functioning” label and a bright smile doesn’t mean my little girl is always doing OK. She is a skilled at masking. She will breeze into your classroom nearly every morning and ask for a job to do before going to her desk. Because that’s her routine, and that is how she feels secure. She will smile and possibly even hug you.
You will wonder how I can look so harassed, because my little girl has put her school mask on. You won’t see the complaints of headaches and stomach aches before school. You won’t see the crying because you are new and unknown, and she misses last year’s teacher who was safe and constant. You won’t hear the screaming, tugging at clothes that chafe and rub and itch after a summer of only wearing clothes to go out and otherwise enjoying bare skin with no itchies. Or me sitting with a tactile cushion calming her, with her little hand rubbing the sequins backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards until she is calm again.
When she tells me she is tired, sometimes I can’t figure out if that’s really tired, or sad, or anxious or angry. Tired means all those things. And she cries as she tells me she doesn’t know how to calm down, or she can’t explain what this feeling is. We deal with it all between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. so she can walk through the school gates with a big smile.
And all day she will seem the same: happy, willing. You may wonder how I can tell, simply by the way she walks out of the classroom, how pent up she is and if we she is going to have a hard afternoon. Because she has had her school mask on, all day. Maybe somebody has bumped or pushed her. Or she can’t figure out how to play the playground games. So she waits and waits until she can come home and let it out, sometimes with an innocuous spark setting off a meltdown. So I’m asking you to take a second look at her sometimes.
Notice her tugging her clothes quietly, surreptitiously, quite possibly unconsciously trying to deal with the sensory irritation. Notice her smile is just a bit too bright, because she’s figuring out what to do next, because she’s afraid of getting it wrong and looking for someone to mimic. Hear her stutter — an end word stutter — unusual to catch on the last syllable of a word but sometimes seen in autistic children, that crops up in sentences when she is excited, tired or has more information in her head than her mouth will allow her to express. It could be that she needs a pause. Notice how she might be withdrawing, appearing to be quietly working but her muscles are hunched and tense as she leans over work she’s not quite sure about but doesn’t know how to ask. Notice that sometimes her jumping up and down may not be excitement, but anxiety at a new or unexpected situation. Or an overload trying to understand playground sociabilities. She often stims by jumping. She might even mooch around the playground and seem happy in her own company despite feeling lonely, and not knowing how to join in, and when she does, because of how she approaches other kids, it doesn’t always go down well.
She probably won’t ask you for the ear defenders I’ve provided, or the tangle toy. She doesn’t feel safe to speak out. So she absorbs the noise and stress. Then when she comes home, her sister will play a game “wrong.” Or I will give her the wrong colored plate. And suddenly I have a child experiencing a meltdown. And sometimes it can take an hour for her to tell me she was lonely at playtime, or somebody bumped her. Sometimes it can take a day. Sometimes I may never find out as it will be lost in the general upset, or she will tell me something random as she feels like she has to give me a reason.
I respect teachers deeply. As a fellow professional I have felt the pressure of targets, and staffing, and just not enough hours in the day trying to meet the needs of way too many people. As far as I’m concerned, a good teacher is a gift from God, as you make so much difference. And you have 30 other little jumping, shouting, squealing, questioning, laughing little ones needing you to help them learn. And every parent wants what I ask — for their child’s voice to be heard, their feelings seen. But please take a few minutes a couple of times a day to see my child.
If you are finding the classroom noisy, I can assure you she is in discomfort, her head will be ringing as she tries to get on with her work, too afraid to stand out by raising her hand to ask for her “denders.” If she’s quiet but she’s fiddling furtively with her clothes, she is in discomfort, it doesn’t take much for her, she’s very tactile. So for example, when she’s upset, I know to rub her hair or her face to soothe her. You can’t do that, I know, so if she’s in discomfort she won’t say it, and she maybe just needs a hand on her shoulder to soothe her. If she’s bouncy on the way in or out from the playground or laughing very loudly (very loudly), she’s entirely possibly anxious or overstimulated about socialising or being outside, but trying to roll with it. She’s not keen on being outside, it doesn’t have walls to make her feel safe. But she probably won’t say. If there is a sudden change of plan that upsets her, she probably won’t say.
During trips, she may be anxious and overwhelmed at times, but everybody else is having fun so she needs to as well as far as she’s concerned, so she will mimic that until she’s ready to explode inside. Despite social stories, despite feelings pictures, she just doesn’t like to, or know how, to express the frustration, anxiety and discomfort to you. So she puts on her school mask and leaves it on til she sees me.
I miss her and worry about her six hours a day, 38 weeks a year, and I’m trusting you with one of my two most treasured gifts. If you can take the time to look with fresh eyes at the subtle clues you will make a huge difference to her day — and to me, her dad and sister when she comes home with excitement about her day. You may still need to tell me occasionally what she’s doing as she compartmentalises. Once the school gate is closed for the day, I am unable to get much information.
So please bear with me if I’m asking lots of questions and try not to brush off my worries. I have a piece of her heart and she has most of my heart and soul and I know her inside and out. Please trust me and allow me to give you this letter in the way I mean it.
She may have lots of practical skills, but she’s still autistic and confused by the big wide world around her and doesn’t know how to express it. It would mean so much to us both if you are able to understand that.
I look forward to you getting to know my baby and finding out all the wonderful things we already know about her. And I’m thanking you in advance for being patient with me.
With all my thanks,
Worried Insomniac Mum
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