Learning from Unexpected Teachers

Tolerance and acceptance of others comes with exposure. The more we are around and form relationships with people of color, the more normal these interactions become. The more our communities represent different sexualities, the more understanding and knowledgeable we become. The same is true for people with disabilities-physical, mental, developmental or otherwise.

April marks Autism Awareness Month, an almost 50-year tradition of educating the public about autism, which affects a person’s ability to interact and communicate with others. Statistics now say autism is prevalent in one of every 88 children in America; there is no known single cause of the disability, and there is no cure.

Because of its nature as a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects each individual in varying degrees, a large majority of us may know someone with autism without really knowing the exact diagnosis. In some people, it is easy to detect, whether in appearance, behavior, functioning or another factor. Yet for others, the symptoms or “clues” of autism may be more subtle. Perhaps this is why it has been so hard for individuals on the autism spectrum to find a place in larger society; regardless of if a person’s disability is something we can visibly see (as we can in most cases when considering race or gender, for example), the disability still lies underneath the surface.

I used to babysit for a family of five children under the age of 10. I love children, but even people who knew this about me thought I was off my rocker for continuing to work this job weekly doing the grueling evening routine that consisted of dinner, homework, bath time and bed time. What do you think… would you call me crazy yet? But what if I told you that the three older boys-about 7, 5 and 3 at the time-were on the autism spectrum? Crazy now? Add to that their little twin sisters (neuro-typical, but six months old when I started)… how about now?

It’s safe to say you have to be a little crazy to do that kind of babysitting (imagine how much crazier their parents have to be), but I loved it because I loved the children. The twins were the sweetest little angels, and the boys-though they each had a different manifestation of autism (autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and pervasive development disorder)-were absolute joys. I valued the job because the parents were awesome, the children were entertaining, and most importantly, I learned a lot, not just about autism, but about people in general.

People are unique. Each of the boys needed to be dealt with in different ways using a number of techniques, and the same applies for the individuals you come across on a daily basis. I had to make and adjust my routines according to how each of the kids were doing on that day, just as meeting and learning about new people requires you to continually change the way you view the world around you. Every evening I spent with the family it was like starting from scratch. We worked on the tasks before us together, and sometimes we achieved our goals with ease (everyone fed, bathed/changed and in bed with minimal mess or causalities), but other times, we didn’t. 

The way I approached this babysitting gig is the way I try to approach my life: be open, be flexible, and above all, be kind. Yes, the kids were difficult at times, but there is no reason to face life without a smile.

So, for Autism Awareness Month, I leave you with a moment of babysitting chaos that I somehow managed to move past and learn from. I hope you can too, or at least laugh at me and try not to doubt my abilities to give effective childcare.

I thought I had settled everyone for the time being (first wrong move) and set about cleaning the disaster of a kitchen I had left in dinner’s wake. Then I heard a moan, followed by a scream. It was number 2, the Aspy, from the boys’ bedroom. I ran in there only to find he had thrown up all over himself and his bed. Wonderful.

In the middle of transporting number 2 into the bathtub, ordering him to strip, balling up the sheets and blankets and finding spare ones to make his bed up again, I lost the other two boys. Well, in a figurative sense. Number 1, who is autistic, was set off by the commotion and was in his own world, scripting something from earlier in the day. It would be useless to try to get his attention now. Number 3 (PDD) was being moody and had planted himself on the floor (not in bed as I had politely asked a dozen times before “the incident”), stubbornly ignoring me. It hit me then that I left the girls rolling around the carpet in the living room with their bottles. Where do I even begin to fix this?

I flung myself into crisis mode, whizzing around the house like I had wings, cleaning as I went, checking in on the kids (who were still definitively not sleeping), and calming everyone down. It took me the rest of the night to regroup from number 2’s bout of sickness, but luckily when his parents came home they were very forgiving and helped me rebound the house and reel the kids back in. We finally restored order and were rewarded with a silent, sleeping house.

I was thrown a curveball, like many of us are in life. We are met with challenges, differences and adversity, and we are forced to adapt. We are surrounded by people who are like us and unlike us, but we are expected to seamlessly transition between these individuals and live in harmony with one another. It’s tough, but it’s possible. And it is necessary. Because if we don’t find a way to overcome the situation that tosses us out of our comfort zone, we won’t find the peace and quiet on the other side.