Earlier this month I traveled to Iceland with a group of differently wired teens from my son D’s school. Iceland is an extraordinary place: traversing its starkly magnificent terrain, you have a vivid sense that you’re standing on planetary crust, its transformations unfolding before your eyes. D’s school—I’ll call it A3—is an extraordinary place too.
A3 is described as a school for kids who learn differently, but in reality it’s not just about learning differently, but about thinking differently, acting differently, being differently. Or just being different. Some of the students are on the autism spectrum, some have attention challenges, some have sensory issues or social anxiety or gender dysphoria or learning disabilities of various types. Some have no diagnosable condition but are there because it’s the first place they’ve found where they feel comfortable and welcome.
This is the story of how my high-functioning autistic son was unceremoniously ejected from the Social Justice Club at his pricey private San Francisco Bay Area school. I know—no irony there whatsoever.
D attended our local public school (School #1) through the end of sixth grade. Challenges that year prompted our district to offer him placement for the following year in a non-public* middle school (School #2) geared specifically toward kids on the autism spectrum.
School #2 was an unmitigated disaster for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was the staff’s inability to stem a series of anti-semitic slurs, culminating in a group of kids following D around his classroom chanting “Hitler Hitler Hitler.” When I asked the principal whether they educate the kids about diversity, she said, Of course. We tell them it’s not nice to point out when someone is different. Ummmm…no.
As a parent, the hardest thing I do is witness my children’s suffering.
Four months ago the Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro—an elvish man with protruding ears, a wicked grin, and a British accent—came to speak in Ann Arbor. He spoke of three principles, espoused by an ancient sage:
1. Don’t push; just use the weight of your own body.
2. Don’t diagnose; just pay attention.
3. Don’t try to help, but don’t turn away.
Since then, I think of these principles regularly with respect to parenting.
As I said, I find my children’s suffering excruciating. So if they’re crying wildly, claiming people don’t like them, or they don’t like themselves, or they don’t like their lives, all I want to do is fix it, as quickly as possible. I want their suffering to stop, and I want the expression of it to stop. Because I can’t stand it.
How to describe the beauty and challenge of that day? How high and steep the dune, how fine and bright the sand? How the ocean—no, Lake Michigan (ha, I wrote ocean!)— spread out below us, an impossibly pure colorscape, gradations of aqua, turquoise, teal leading out to a deep true cobalt?
We were at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We were traversing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when we stopped at #9, the Lake Michigan Overlook.
At first I tried to stop D and E from rolling down the nearly vertical dune, fearing they’d lose control, plummet over the edge and disappear. They started rolling anyway, tentatively at first, stopping and starting, looking back. I glanced uncertainly at my husband—I’ll call him H—and he, ever the cautious one, shook his head. I called, half-heartedly, Boys, come back. They ignored me, of course, and I discussed with nearby adults whether it was safe to go down. A couple with toddlers shook their heads and left. But then a man with two young kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, appeared on the horizon as if by magic.
As a mother of two boys, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, I experience the stories of the #metoo movement from a multiplicity of perspectives:
As a woman in the world, I’ve had encounters ranging from the frightening (a man locking me in a room with him and pulling out the key) to the sleazy (a professor intimating that he’d sponsor my project if I’d pose nude for his art class) to the merely disgusting (a guy jerking off in front of me in a public park). I’m relieved and cautiously heartened to see the culture finally begin to shift.
As a mom, I take every opportunity to alert my sons – ages 10 and 14 - to sexism and gender discrimination in its many forms – through language, media imagery, externally imposed constructs of masculinity and femininity, etcetera. We’ve discussed consent and the right of each person to decide if, when, and how they want to be touched.
As the mother of a person with autism, however, there’s an aspect of the whole conversation that frightens me. My older son, D, by virtue of his neurological difference, has trouble reading non-verbal social cues. Because of this, I’m terrified that he’ll make some mistake that will get him into trouble.