As I prepared for summer camp this summer, a teacher warned me about an autistic student who would be joining us at our camp. My initial thought was of the challenges I would face dealing with a child who was defiant, uncontrollable, and incapable of participating in our class activities. As always I tried to have an open mind, but I sure didn’t have high expectations for this student.
As camp began I was introduced to a small child with a head slightly larger than normal. Johnny* had dark eyes that twinkled and an elfish smile like he was contemplating something funny. Johnny approached me and with a sing-song voice proceeded to ask me question after question. “What is your name?” “Where is Mrs. Hamly?” “Why is Mrs. Hamly on vacation?” “What is the schedule?” As I answered each question he had another question ready like when Johnny asked, “What is our schedule?”
I responded, “First you’ll be going to my class to learn about building houses.”
Johnny replied, “What comes after building houses?”
I said, “Then we have playtime.”
Johnny then said, “What comes after playtime?”
The pattern continued until we had gone through the entire schedule. I then broke off the game so that we could move on to our first class. As we entered our first class I started my lesson and got the students working on a project. Johnny was not interested in the project and would stand up and go skipping around the room waving his arms and swinging his head side to side. He wasn’t bothering anyone so I allowed him time to move before calling him back to his seat. When Johnny returned to his seat he asked for paper and pencil, which I gave him to keep him busy while I worked with some other students. For ten minutes Johnny was focused on his paper. His tongue moved to the corner of his mouth as he concentrated hard on the words he was forming. When he was done he proudly came up to me and said, “Is this the schedule?” To my amazement Johnny had written the schedule from memory in an organized list using perfect spelling. I knew that few of his peers in the class could have copied it off a piece of paper, let alone pull it from memory.
Over the course of this summer I have looked forward to seeing Johnny each day. He is very different from his peers. Like a puppy dog that greets you at the door, Johnny is always glad to see you. He is inquisitive, curious, simple, even childlike, and loved by all of his classmates. My initial opinions were based on my limited experience and incorrect assumptions. The label that Johnny had been given did not do him justice.
As a new school year approaches I can thank Johnny for increasing my wonder of how our brains work, showing me that it is important to smile, and helping me to keep my opinions in check. I guess one reason why I teach is, because it teaches me so much as well. Thank you Johnny.
(In the comments below, please tell me what one of your students has taught you.)*I've changed the child's name for this article.