Monday, May 24, 2010

intuition

I had an amazing encounter yesterday, with an adult who has autism. It was at the public library, not the branch that I usually visit. In fact, I haven't been inside this one in at least 5 years, probably more.

This branch is in the part of town where I used to teach Band, before I had kids of my own. Little E and I had gone there just to hang out (in the A/C) and read some books since we had an hour to wait before his speech therapy appointment. We're sitting in the children's section, reading Stone Soup, and a man began walking toward us. He had an official-looking ID card sort of thing hanging from a lanyard around his neck, and as I looked up to see his face I instantly recognized him.

During one of my first few years of teaching, circa 1995-ish, a new young man and his family moved to town and enrolled at our school and in my band. I was told little about his situation, other than that he has autism and had played in the band at his previous school. His name was Jake, and his family told me he had played the tuba. So, Young and Idealistic Teacher Girl said "sure, Jake, you can play the tuba" and jumped in with both feet. It turned out that he didn't do much on the tuba other than play really loud, REALLY loud notes that sounded basically like a foghorn. But I also noticed that he was an amazing reader, with an unusual cadence to his speech that I'd really never heard before.

As our Spring Concert approached, inspiration struck me as I searched for ways to include this child in our performance.........knowing that the foghorn sound of Jake's tuba would keep the other 90 kids in the band from being heard as they played. I asked Jake and his family if they would consider allowing him to be our announcer for the concert, introducing each piece and telling a little about it before the band played. They agreed, and the concert was a great success. In retrospect, I'm pretty darn proud of myself for coming up with this, considering that I had had no training or exposure whatsoever to autism before this, and definitely had no educational background in special needs, inclusion, accommodations, etc. But thankfully, I was able to capitalize on Jake's strength with language while allowing him to feel proud and have a sense of accomplishment, while also allowing the other band students to demonstrate their musical skills and what they'd learned during the year.

Fast forward to yesterday. Somehow, as the man approached us in the library, I knew instantly that it was Jake. Don't know how I knew, I just knew. I did the math in my head, and figured he must be in his mid-twenties by now. He kept walking toward us, looking very purposeful, looking at me, walking directly toward me, and I started wondering whether he recognized me too. He put up his hand as if he wanted to do a "high 5", so I put mine up too.........but instead, he placed his hand flat against mine, then laced his fingers in between mine. Then he leaned in, almost like to hug me, but simply put his forehead against mine, then stood back and looked at me. "What's your name?" he asked. In a split-second decision, I chose to say "I'm Jennifer" (he wouldn't have known my married name anyway). "Hi Jennifer", he said, then turned to Ethan and asked the same question. "My name is Ethan, and I really like Sonic the Hedgehog......" was the reply. As Ethan talked, Jake turned and walked away from us, back toward the circulation desk.

I pointed out to Ethan that he should have asked for the young man's name, so he jumped up, ran after him and asked. I couldn't see the two of them, they were behind a tall bookshelf, but I heard them. "What's your name?" Ethan asked, and the reply was "I can't talk now, I'm working". I called to Ethan to come on back over to me, and he seemed confused and maybe a little hurt. I just said something like "he'll talk to you later, he's busy right now, I'm sorry he wasn't able to talk to you more".

We finished our reading, and got up to leave. I saw Jake again, putting books on a shelf, and as a new guest entered the library, he also greeted her with "What's your name?".......but no interlocking fingers, no forehead-to-forehead "embrace". I can only wonder what he was thinking and feeling when he had that moment with me. A memory from long ago of being in my band? A feeling of connection and of being understood by someone who didn't really know what autism was 15 years ago but now lives with it every day and has chosen to make it the focus of her career and future? Who knows, but I liked it. I think I'll have to make sure we go to that library a bit more often.

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