On Friday, I took Chewey in to be the “typical peer” in the classroom for preschoolers with autism.
I say “typical peer” in quotes because he’s been being pretty wretched in his own preschool classroom. He’s been doing things that mortify me as his mother. Basically being difficult, but many of the things they say he’s doing I’ve never heard him do. Not once.
On Thursday, he had a really bad day, and I decided both Chewey and his teacher needed a break, so I took him to my school, on the pretense that he was trying out being a typical peer in our room. This wasn’t exactly true: I needed to go to work, and I thought, with me in the room, he might be able to hold it together.
I worried, because we have some very difficult behaviors in that room, and Chewey’s behaviors can be… difficult. I worried he’d try to take on the most aggressive kid in the class and get his tiny rear-end handed to him. I worried he’d pick up on behaviors. I worried he’d actually demonstrate bad behavior to kids whose behaviors are, often times, really, really difficult.
He surpassed all of my expectations. The other “typical” kids who’ve come into that room have spent the morning crying and not returned. Chewey, having attended daycare since he was 12 weeks old, ignored all the bad behavior–and there was plenty of it, seeing as how it was the last day of school. The behaviors–everything from biting to screaming–didn’t even phase him.
What was more impressive was how the other kids followed what he did, and how Chewey recognized that he was the leader of the group. He had them all lined up on the wall when I told him that’s what we did. He convinced five of the eight to be quiet. One boy, who puts up a fight every time he has to clean up after snack, cleaned up on his own after watching Chewey do it.
He greeted everyone in the class. He introduced himself, and started conversations with everyone, even those who are nonverbal, and he waited with a patience uncommon for an adult for their answers. He offered up fields of two when his conversational partner didn’t answer.
Chewey: “How are you?”
Partner: No answer.
Chewey: “Are you good?” (Demonstrates thumbs up) “Or bad?” (Shows the thumbs down).
One boy, who never answers these kinds of questions, actually looked at his shoes and said, “I happy.”
We were all amazed.
But what was the most amazing was when Chewey had the most aggressive boy in the class engaged in pretend play.
He and this other boy, after having a brief conversation, played pirates. I know it was all Chewey’s idea, because all of a sudden, the other little guy started using words like “swashbuckle” and “scalawag,” which are Chewey words. They played for a good ten minutes, pretending to slay sea monsters and steal treasure, something this child has never done without adult support.
I have never been so proud of my son.
I have never been so convinced of the power of a typical peer model.
We’ve been working on greetings with some of these boys for months. We’ve been working on desensitization to touch since October with others. But the one they talked to first was my son. The one they all wanted to hold hands with as we walked to the park? The same.
The one who got them to pretend, the one who got them to make eye contact, the one they took turns with was not a teacher or an aide, but a typical peer who didn’t judge them for being different. Who offered them choices without being told to do it.
Chewey recognized they were different, and was totally OK with that. He wasn’t scared of them, as the other children were. He was ready, willing and able to be their friend, and they responded to that.
He showed me he can be a leader. I knew he had a kind heart, but I never knew how kind.
I have always loved my son, but I don’t know if I ever really knew him. I think you can judge another person’s character by how they treat those who are different, who are less fortunate. Chewey is a lot of things, but he showed me a compassionate nature I don’t think I ever recognized in him. He’s not afraid of people who aren’t like him. He demonstrated an empathy toward these kids that I don’t think most adults have.
After all, I’ve seen the stares in the WalMart. Everyone with a child with autism knows how adults will stare, and make rude comments, and walk the other direction when that child throws one of their colossal fits. Shoot, I’ve gotten those stares and comments whenever I’ve had to do the “walk of shame” with one of my typical, albeit volatile, children.
Chewey didn’t do any of those things. Because he’s better than that. And bless him for it.
He showed me that he’s the perfect typical peer. He’s been in daycare, so he knows the drill. He knows to ignore behaviors. But the one thing he did, that you can’t teach, was forgive and move on after a child calms down. There was no judgment in my Chewey. They’d calm down and he’d play with them. No comments. No stares. No crying in the corner like the other kids did.
We could all learn a lot from a four-year old.