By Dan Coulter
Matt’s eyes dart around the classroom. Jennifer smiles shyly at him as their eyes meet. His pulse is racing. Everyone is getting seated and class is about to start.
Today is going to be different.
Yesterday, his class learned about Asperger Syndrome. The school counselor came and told everyone what it was and how it affected Matt. The counselor had talked with Matt and his parents beforehand, and they had agreed about what the counselor would say. He didn’t make it sound like a disease or a big problem. Instead, the counselor explained that Matt’s brain processed information differently in some ways, and that made some things harder for Matt. But he also described how it helped make Matt an expert at other things.
Matt looks up at the teacher and she smiles at him, too. The knot in Matt’s stomach starts to undo itself. School had only begun a week ago, and it had started out to be as bad as last year.
Last year, Matt’s teacher had never really understood what was going on in Matt’s head. She’d gotten impatient when he continually forgot to raise his hand and called out answers in class. One terrible day, she’d accused him of not trying hard enough to control himself and asked him angrily if he knew what manners were. Overwhelmed by fear and confusion, he’d had a meltdown and started to cry. Then he’d had to walk, in shame, to the principal’s office, where he’d gotten a lecture about acting his age. For the remainder of the year, some classmates had teased him and the rest had ignored him.
But now, his new teacher and the students around him knew there was a reason for the ways he acted and reacted.
Yesterday, the counselor had observed that everyone in the class was a bit different. He’d talked about looking past different behaviors to find the person underneath, pointing out that people like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson all had habits that made them look odd. This didn’t mean that they had Asperger Syndrome or that anyone who acted different was a genius, but it did show what the world would have missed if people hadn’t looked past their odd behaviors.
Then Matt had walked to the front of the room and talked about Asperger Syndrome and answered questions about it. Some of his classmates looked amazed when he described his love of sports statistics and easily answered their questions about their favorite teams and players. Matt felt like they were seeing him for the first time.
This morning, in the hall on his way to class, several kids had come up to Matt and apologized for the way they’d treated him. Jason had actually told two jerks from another class to lay off when they’d called Matt a retard.
Matt’s mind comes back to the present as the teacher starts class. He knows he’s still going to be seen as different. But now, maybe most of his classmates will be more patient and explain the social things he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t want to change everything about himself. He just wants to fit in. For the first time, that seems possible.
So this is what hope feels like.
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(Matt’s story is not about one child. It’s a compilation with input from many stories I’ve heard from parents, teachers, and children. The last line is a quote from my son.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of the Intricate Minds series of DVDs, which help students understand classmates who have Asperger Syndrome and similar conditions. You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2009 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.