Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Aloha brownies

“Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.”
— Paul Collins

At the end of the school year, last Spring, Danny's teacher announced they would be having Hawaii week--several days filled with tropical snacks and activities.    I was thrilled at the prospect; Danny desperately needed a break from the regular, stress-filled days of school.  It had been a really difficult year for him, so I was excited for the Hawaii unit. For once, Danny was excited to go to school, and we were both looking forward to a break from the endless worksheets.

I volunteered to make the Aloha brownies, as I particularly enjoy baking. Also, it was the only treat on the list that Danny would eat; he has a special fondness for brownies.

When Mrs. M sent home the recipe, however, I knew Danny would not be partaking of the Aloha brownies. It was filled with canned pineapple, coconuts and walnuts, then topped with a cream cheese frosting.  Mrs. M swore this was a treat that her students loved every year, which surprised me; I could think of only a handful of kids who would be willing to taste a flavor and texture combination like this, but who am I to question the teacher?

Everything that could go wrong with this psuedo-Hawaiian recipe did.  My husband couldn't find the exact brand and type of brownie mix on the recipe, so he substituted a different kind.  Not a problem, usually, but he picked a brand of Mocha-flavored brownies, not realizing this meant it was coffee-flavored. I wasn't too optimistic how coffee would taste with coconut, walnuts and pineapple, but I had no time to get another mix.

Also, the mix I used called for different proportions of oil and eggs, so I wasn't entirely sure what I should do.  The batter barely coated the bottom of the pan, so I decided I must not have added enough oil.  After scraping the batter out of the pan and adding more oil and an extra egg, I popped the pan of batter in the oven, hoping for the best.

Alas, I pulled a pan of  flat, rubbery brownies from the oven.  I figured the frosting would make up for the problems, but somehow it ended up tasting way too sweet.

Standing over the pan of mutant brownies, it struck me that this sorry excuse for a treat was a fitting end for the school year. Like the brownies, the year had been a disaster for Danny, academically speaking.  At the beginning, I had high hopes, but those hopes were soon dashed as I realized that none of Danny's teacher knew anything about autism.

I met with his teachers repeatedly. They made some very small changes, but they were stop gap measures and never got to the root of the problem, which was that Danny learns in a profoundly different way than most kids.  That shouldn't be a surprise given his autism, but somehow, none of his teachers understood this fundamental truth.

His teachers never got to know Danny. They didn't understand my son, and instead of trying to figure him out, they subtly blamed him for his struggles.  They spent the entire year trying to squeeze my square-peg kid  into the round hole, and it was harming him emotionally.  Just like I persevered with the brownies, even after they were clearly ruined, the teachers continued to teach Danny in a way that wasn't working.

But his teachers weren't the only ones to blame. I also blame myself.  You see, I didn't trust my instincts.  I let them talk me out of accommodations I knew would help Danny.  I didn't want to make waves or inconvenience anyone, so I let them convince me everything was okay.   I let them persuade me that Danny was no different than the other kids and that their teaching methods would help him eventually, though all the evidence pointed to the contrary.  I let them convince me they were doing everything possible for Danny, when in fact, they were doing very little. And what they were doing wasn't helping him.

It took me almost the entire school year to finally stand up for Danny and insist on certain accommodations, but by that time, it was too late to salvage second grade.

Just like those brownies.  After the baking fiasco, I wanted to dump the pineapply, coconutty pan of slop and make a pan of regular fudgy brownies, using my son's favorite recipe.  I knew the kids would gobble them up, but I couldn't do it.  I couldn't buck the system; I was hell-bent on following Mrs. M's orders, because she was, after all, the teacher; she must know what she's talking about.  I didn't have the courage to follow my convictions or instincts, just like with Danny and his learning challenges.

So, now those brownies have become a symbol to me, a symbol of all the mistakes I made last year.  But they are also a symbol of how I will be a better advocate for my son this year. There will be no more Aloha brownies in this house;  I am done following the rules.  I am done ignoring my instincts.  I am going to push for the services and help my son needs, no matter how much it inconveniences a teacher.  I am going to quit letting people try to fit him into the round hole.

And from now on, I'm using my own damn brownie recipe.

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Patty is a stay-at-home mom to three wonderful kids, all of whom have Sensory Processing Disorder.  Her oldest son is also on the autism spectrum.  She is a freelance reporter for her local newspaper and started a LEGO Social Club for kids on the spectrum last year.  She blogs at Pancakes Gone Awry..


  1. I get this COMPLETELY.
    starting from scratch, a new year here too.
    We'll make the brownies together, informing everyone of the recipe before they start baking.
    Here's to a good school year.

  2. LOVE this. We try so hard, don't we, to not rock the boat? Yet nobody knows our kids better than we do. But I know this will be a better year...with better brownies!

  3. Good for you. Half way through reading your post, I was saying to you... throw out those bloody brownies and make your own! You have nothing to lose... go for it! :)

  4. I'm glad I caught this post. I can so relate to this one. I'll cheer you on as you perfect that recipe this year. Good luck with that new batch of brownies!!

  5. I learned the long, hard way I could be pleasing chums with my disabled child's teachers and adminstrators or I could be my child's advocate but I couldn't be both. It was a choice that slapped me in the face, but the answer was clear and once made things have so much better for her. I may not be "liked", but I am respected. I am not a bull in a china shop or a "wicked witch", but I consider myself a "lioness" standing firm for my special little cub.

  6. Patty,
    I'm glad you are learning to follow your instincts. The aloha brownies do not sound very aloha to me.

    Most people know aloha means hello and goodbye, but did you know that aloha also means showing love, compassion and mercy? The teachers need to learn that in Hawaii, it is all about ohana, family. Schools become part of the ohana in Hawaii and aloha is more loosely termed to also mean accommadating family differences too.