My High School Years With Autism
Ever since I graduated from high school five years ago, I’m still grateful for being a person with a disability who had the chance to meet and learn from other people with disabilities. My six-year journey in high school was rewarding and inspiring. Throughout those years, I experienced great life lessons about what a person’s life could be like while living with a disability. I want other high school students living with or without a disability to know you’re never alone. Every one of you has an inspiring story to tell and talent to share. You can make a person smile from one small act of kindness.
My first day in school as a grade eight student was not that bad. I met my homeroom teacher in a special education class; my teacher was nice. The first few days were fine, but I was quite shy and nervous meeting new classmates. I always thought to myself, “Are they mean?” I was a very sensitive kid who took hurtful compliments way too seriously. As a person with autism, this had been a struggle for me. One time I was in keyboarding class and my homeroom teacher instructed me to not look at the keyboard while keeping my eyes on the textbook and typing. I was doing all right until I got distracted and stopped typing because I was talking to my classmate who was beside me. My teacher reminded me to keep working, gently grabbed my hands and placed them on the keyboard. I didn’t like that. I had a habit of being perfect.
After keyboarding class, I got more upset. It was lunchtime — just three minutes before my woodworking class was to start. I was playing a game of catch with a classmate. The classmate threw the ball as I caught it. I threw the ball to the classmate, but the ball accidentally hit the window. Luckily, the ball was made of rubber. A teacher opened the window and firmly said, “Don’t do that again!” I immediately froze; I began to cry. I stopped playing catch and walked away, feeling hurt.
After lunchtime, my woodworking class started. Unexpectedly, the teacher who entered the classroom was the same person I confronted from lunchtime. I was shocked. I continued to cry as a nice support worker approached me and asked if I wanted to go outside for a bit. I said OK. The support worker helped me by asking me why I was crying. I explained and the support worker gave me advice that resonated with me. “Everyone makes mistakes. Your teacher probably has a bad day and didn’t mean to talk to you firmly. Don’t take it personally.” In my grade eight year, I practiced not taking things too seriously.
In grade nine I started to have some friends and I started to have fun, but sometimes, my habit of taking things too seriously was in the way. I was going to try music class, but somebody told me the teacher was very strict. Rumor had it that the music teacher could get angry easily if people didn’t listen. Again, my anxiety increased. But he seemed nice and fair. He taught me how to play the violin and the trumpet. The class was fun. OK, not bad for a start.
Right before Christmas vacation started, I got upset. On the day after my music concert, I thought we had a day off from class. I was relieved to get a break from the concert. I was walking along the hallway as I saw my music teacher. I said “Hi,” but my music teacher did not smile. Instead he asked me, “where were you?” I was confused. I thought we get a break from the concert. Actually, the truth was “you better show up at the next class otherwise you’re in huge trouble.” There was no day off — I misunderstood. I actually missed a class. I was very upset; I punished myself. I finally experienced the wrath from my music teacher and I wanted to quit music class.
After that awkward and unpleasant surprise, my homeroom teacher invited me to a goodbye party for my science teacher in the cafeteria. I was still upset that I didn’t want to go. My special education, homeroom teacher noticed how upset I was and asked me if I would like to tell my music teacher how I felt. I said yes. So my music teacher noticed came down to the cafeteria and talked to me. What happened next surprised me. My music teacher kindly comforted me and told me to not be hard on myself. He said “you’re a good guy,” encouraged me to keep trying and said he knew I can do it. I never knew he had a kinder side. I felt better and decided I wanted to continue with music.
Months later, I had my final concert performance with the class. After the concert, my music teacher was about to present “the most hardworking students” awards. He called out some students’ names, but there was one more award to be given away. This award was for top beginning band student. My music teacher said something like “this student is very hard-working and I couldn’t be more impressed with how committed he was to bring his positive attitude to the class.” That award was being given to me — unexpectedly. He called my name and asked me to come front of the stage. I was speechless. I felt I didn’t deserve this award. The audience applauded with cheers. I was astonished. He had truly believed in me.
My music teacher was truly the best teacher I ever had and I’m still grateful for how far I’ve come to face my fear. Unfortunately, after the year-end concert, he retired. I never had the chance to say goodbye as I was in a rush to get my report card. However, before I left the room, I wrote on the whiteboard, “Thank you for everything.” I hope he saw it. I will never forget how inspiring my teacher was. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my music teacher very much and I wish him all the best in retirement.
After everything I faced, I started to identify myself. My final years in high school from grade 10 to grade 12 were life-changing. My autism allowed me to meet other people who are like me and get to know more about the disability community. I had been in my special education class for five years and really enjoyed it. What’s beautiful being part of the disability community is seeing all of my classmates who are so optimistic, so kind and so bright. They inspired me to become the best person I can be without pretending to be somebody else.
If a kid has autism, Down syndrome or any other disability, what’s very important is their disability never defines who they truly are. Every single person has an amazing talent to share with the world — even the smallest things can make a huge difference. They never need to be “normal,” they never need to be perfect, and they never need to be special. Small acts of kindness like smiling, laughing, or sharing can be the greatest gifts of joy. People with disabilities taught me about kindness, compassion and patience.
To all high school students, post-graduates, or anybody else who’s reading this, I promise you this… you are awesome, you are beautiful, and you are inspiring. Every one of you can make a difference in many ways. If you’re struggling with something personal, you’re never alone and I believe all of you can achieve something great. I wish every one of you the best.
Getty image by Dongseong Kim.