One of the things people often ask me is whether or not I think autism is on the rise. Or if I have any ideas as to how Liam became autistic. Was it the traumatic birth? Was it the Zoloft? Are there other people with autism in the family?
To be honest, I’m sick of these questions. As much as I want to be able to blame something or follow a trend as to what causes autism, to point my finger at the thing that’s redefined this entire family, I’m just not capable. Is autism more prevalent? Maybe. But it used to be that kids like mine were sent to military school, or tossed in the back of the class, or beaten. Times change, and it’s hard to know for sure.
To me, it just doesn’t matter what caused it or why. The fact of the matter is that this is my son. This is how he is. He’s not normative. And so many of his challenges are wrapped up in the “high-functioning” category that most people write him off. Even teachers have written him off. And he’s not stupid. He knows it. He can tell when adults look at him, judge him, pass him by. And he turns it on himself. It’s a horrible thing to see in such a young child.
Right now, we’re rebuilding his educational foundations. We have to tear down his experiences and fears and show him that there are adults in the world who don’t just care for him, but want him to flourish. Grown-ups who are dedicated to seeing him accomplish amazing things—things we know he’s capable of—regardless of his challenges.
I wish his other teachers had seen it this way. Chapel Hill is known for its amazing schools. And one of the reasons we’ve lived here so long is to take advantage of that. In North Carolina, a state lagging in teacher pay and in quality of schools, we felt that Chapel Hill had the best to offer. And for the most part, his teachers were excellent. Especially his kindergarten and second grade teachers.
But teacher assistants are another story.
I don’t know anything about hiring processes or credentials—and I’ll say that this is entirely anecdotal evidence—but in the first and second grade Liam struggled immensely with his teacher assistants. He frequently told me they yelled at him in his face (if you have a kid on the spectrum, you know how frustrating that is), took away his recess (in spite of our insistence that they find another way to exact their punishment), and sent them to the principal’s office again and again.
Listen. I know my kid can be a jerk. He doesn’t mean to be. But for those involved in his education, it’s important that they at least do the bare minimum and work to understand him. It’s not that we don’t discipline him at home. It’s not that we’re lax parents. It’s not that he just needs a firmer hand or that he’s a problem child. His life is a web of anxiety, and he’s like a wild horse at this point. Mostly because he knows that adults give up on him. I have no idea of knowing what these teacher assistants have said to him behind closed doors, but I know he saves the kind of ire he has for them for very few. He knows them all by name, and it breaks my heart that their influence is greater than the good teachers he has.
Today I went to pick Liam up at afterschool. It’s a small program at his new school. Both Michael and I work, and we don’t have any other options—it’s hard to find an inclusive afterschool program—so I get there as soon as I can… usually around 5pm, the cutoff time. I saw through the window that a tall young man was escorting Liam to the playground in an excited manner. My first thought was that he’d gotten in trouble—we all have programming—but I followed them nonetheless.
I opened the door and watched them play and race cars. The young man brought as much exuberance and enthusiasm as another kid would, yet managed not to talk down to Liam. They were laughing, playing almost as peers. When I announced my presence, Liam let me know they were going to do one more race and then we’d go home. And he held to his word and got ready to leave, something he doesn’t often do.
The young man introduced himself as Liam’s teacher assistant.
I did a double take. This man had spent the majority of the day with my kid. MY KID, who generally exhausts most adults with his inflexibility, stubbornness, and inability to carry on a two person conversation. But this teacher—who’s new to the school, I should add—treated Liam, at the end of an undoubtedly long day—with friendliness, compassion, and fun. And did I mention this wasn’t even required? He did this because of a staff meeting, and he took the extra time with Liam… just because.
It’s one of the hardest things in the world to see adults judge your child. To put them in a box. To give up on them. You feel alone. So, so, terribly alone.
I want to tell them how wrong they were. I want to tell them I understand being scared, I understand that he doesn’t make sense. That he is maddening and frustrating and confusing. But he’s a beautiful child who’s been dealt a very tough hand of cards, and he needs people to believe in him more than anything else in the world. And if they just let go for a second, if they just stopped yelling and saw that… he could have had a fighting chance.
But now I’m not worrying. I know his teacher’s assistant believes in him. Finally. There have been so many instances during his first three weeks at school that show me we’re not alone. The gifted teachers and teacher assistants at Liam’s school understand that he’s a whole person, with experiences and fears, but also joys and interests. They are in this like we are in this. Yes, we’ve invested in him. Our friends who’ve donated have invested, too. But it’s a process. A process he’s just starting.
We’re making lots of adjustments here, because we know that Liam’s education is the most important hurdle of our lives right now. It may be that he isn’t here forever. It may be that he is. But every day I’m reminded of how important this investment is.
If you can, please share Liam’s story. We have a long road ahead, both emotionally and financially. Every bit helps. You can donate to the GoFundMe campaign directly, you can share this story on social media, or you can buy from Amazon with our code and we’ll make a small commission.