Having autism affects every single aspect of your life, every single action you take, and every single way you understand something. I see this first hand with my student, Jose*.
His day is affected from the moment he walks through my door in the morning. With students running, shouting, and bustling, Jose hates the morning times. Loud and chaotic, mornings are hell for his quiet and structured mind. If Jose were to run the school, students would walk in quiet lines around the school, not straying away from their path, quickly and efficiently getting to their destination. When a student lets out an excited squeal as they see their friend, it sounds as if a student put a bull horn up to Jose’s ear while poking his ear drum with a red-hot poker. When students accidentally brush against him in the hallway, his skin crawls and burns, as if hundreds of fire ants were crawling on his arms. Not to mention the shirt he is wearing has a scratchy tag that makes him want to rip his skin off. The tag that most other students wouldn’t notice feels like sandpaper to Jose. This will be in the back of his mind all day. By the time Jose gets through riding the bus and navigating his way to my classroom through the over-packed hallway,
he is exhausted at only 7:45.
Once in my classroom, Jose begins to unpack, a time in the day that he enjoys. It is a time where he is in control of all things, the order of steps, how fast he walks, where he places his items, and how his items lay in his cubby. He is slow and methodical, placing his pencils in a straight orderly line on his desk, making sure that the lead doesn’t touch the eraser of the next pencil. He touches the corner of his desk three times, “tap tap tap”, light touches on the corner to fulfill his sensory requirements which are substantially higher than my other students. He makes his way to his cubby, holding his backpack with both hands, close to his chest to ensure it doesn’t slip out of his hands. Slipping out of his hands would mean his pencil box would fall and open, causing his pencils to scatter everywhere, more noises to cause excruciating pain in his ears and mind. Once he gets to his cubby, Jose hangs his backpack with utmost care, ensuring the straps lay flat. Jose’s brows furrow as he realizes one zipper isn’t as it should be – all zippers closed to the right side. That’s how it is. Always. No question. He walks back to his desk and with a light “tap tap tap” he sits down.
Math is next. Jose thrives in math. Math is orderly and predictable, every time you add 2 and 2, you get 4. There are no surprises for Jose during math, it makes sense to him. Math problem. “Tap tap tap”. Math problem. “Tap tap tap”. The fake wood covering his desk is worn at the corner from many beloved tap tap taps.
Today is different. Right as math begins, Jose glances at his backpack, just to make sure his zippers and straps were still in line. That is when he notices that some other student had knocked into his backpack, making his right strap hang cockeyed. This causes absolute chaos in his mind. Imagine that you just got a text message that your mother or another close family member was in the hospital on life support. The sender provides no further information, and when you frantically text back, then call and call again they do not answer. You don’t get any answers for hours. Imagine that chaos in your mind. That is what Jose feels when his strap is cockeyed. There is a battle going on in Jose’s mind. “Do I stand up and fix the strap? But that’s against that the rules. I do not want to break the rules. Everyone will look at me if I stand”. I consider walking over ans fixing the strap myself, but I know that that will not suffice, he needs to fix it himself. At this point, I have lost Jose. I can tell because his eyes are distant and he begins to slowly and gently rocking back and forth in his chair, ignoring the math problems he usually rushes to finish. Math is lost to Jose today, but that’s okay, we will try again tomorrow.
As we transition to our next subject, Jose quickly stands up, “tap tap tap”, then rushes over to his backpack to fix the chaos. Once his strap is turned correctly, you can see the relief in his face, and walks back to his desk for a celebratory “tap tap tap”, and walks to our line, being the first student in line.
You can see the distress on his face as he can see that other students are standing in the incorrect spots in line with their arms swinging, which Jose knows is against the classroom rules. The chaos in his mind starts to build, as he can start to feel the sandpaper tag against his skin. The swinging arm culprit brushes her arm against Jose, who is on edge after the chaos of the hallways and his crooked straps. She freely says “whoops sorry”, but it is too late as Jose has already got his arms out to push her. She lands on her bottom and bursts out in tears; Jose runs. He speeds out of the room and runs as fast as he can, so many thoughts running through his mind. I yell to another teacher to watch my class as I tear down the hallways, my heels clicking on the tile and badge pounding against my chest. Teachers are not alarmed when they see me run as they were at the beginning of the year. They know what it means. I don’t even need to anxiously look into rooms. I know that he is in the library. The library is like math to Jose. Quiet and orderly. Everything is where it’s supposed to be. I find him sitting in a corner, rocking gently back and forth, tears slowly running down his innocent cheeks. I sit next to him and quietly pull out an encyclopedia, what we look at together whenever we need to take a moment away. I say quietly to him, “I know it’s hard Jose, and I’m sorry that she hit you. Her arms should have been touching the seam of her pants like you were”. Jose’s small, warm, and shaking hand reaches over and finds my hand, and he rubs my pinky finger nail. He loves the feeling of the ridges of my nails. Once he’s done feeling all of my nail, he moves onto my rings. He delicately fingers the swirls and curls of my rings and then twists them gently. I know this is Jose’s sign of affection. I whisper, “thank you”.
The thought that we still have to get through lunch and recess breaks my heart for him.
Oh how I wish Jose could speak.