When I tell people that I am writing a book about families who have children with autism, I am invariably asked, “Why autism?” The answer is long and complicated. It’s hard to explain, because my interest in autism goes back to 1994. It reads like the introductory scenes of a movie, the part before the opening credits and title.
The room was crowded. Some people stood clustered in groups talking to new or old friends. Others hunkered down in kindergarten chairs not meant to accommodate their height or width. The air was charged with anticipation, excitement, uncertainty and nervousness, this latter mostly emanating from me. About the time I invited everyone to have a seat, in strode a woman and a child of about five. The child’s hair had not been combed and he wore no shoes. Neither he or the woman seemed concerned by the fact that he was the only child in the room, nor by his dirty bare feet. Some of the other visitors seemed a little hesitant. Some seemed curious. Myself, I was a little unsure but welcomed all my guests, introduced myself, and began the Open House for the parents of kindergarteners who would be entering my classroom the following week. I was reentering the teaching profession after having pursued other paths for twenty years, and who was this boy without shoes at a parents’ only event?
I can’t recall a word I said that night of my kindergarten open house. I do remember that I was constantly wondering about this woman and her child. Smiling parents said their goodbyes before leaving. Soon I was left with the woman and her barefoot son. While I may not remember what I said, she was evidently encouraged by my words. She informed me that her son had autism and she had heard that our school was very welcoming to children with special needs. She was at the open house to check us out and after listening to my presentation she was going to ask that her son be enrolled in my kindergarten class.
She left and I thought, “Autism?” I remembered a neighbor telling me she believed a neighbor’s preschooler had autism because he walked on his toes. That’s all I “knew” about autism, even having earned both a general education and special education certification almost 25 years earlier. (Maybe I should say because I had earned my special education certification in the dinosaur age!) This boy was not walking on his barefoot toes like my neighbor’s child. The term had never come up in all of the special education classes I took in the early seventies. It had not been mentioned at the school at which I taught nor did we discuss it in the graduate education and Gifted education classes in which I was currently enrolled. I hadn’t even watched Rainman. I wondered, “What on earth is autism?” I knew that I better figure it out quickly.
That is why I began to read everything I could about autism, and didn’t stop reading for the next twenty years.