I'm writing a memoir about working as a school psychologist with children on the autism spectrum while raising a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. Thought I'd share a few installments. Here's the first one.
When I was twenty, I stuck a bumper sticker on my bile-colored Datsun Honeybee that read: I’D RATHER BE STIMMING. I loved it for its obtuseness, for the private joke. Stimming is what autistic kids do: hand flapping, head banging, humming or laughing, finger twiddling, spinning toys, waving a piece of yarn in front of one’s face. One day, I stopped at a red light, and a young man on a motorcycle pulled up next to me. Over the drone of his engine he shouted, “What’s stimming?” I wasn’t sure how to answer in the time before the light changed. “Self-stimulation!” I shouted across the lane as the light turned green. “Well, all right!” he said, revving his engine and speeding away.
Around that time, I volunteered at a Saturday recreation program for autistic teens--all boys--in San Francisco. Beatific Johnny mimicked television commercials. “Johnny, what does Visine do?” we’d ask him, as if he was a dog performing tricks. “Gets the red out” he said every time. Long-lashed, fair-haired David who for lunch would only eat a tuna sandwich, cut in fourths, his Phenobarbital tablet hidden inside. One boy was taller than me and hugged too hard. Another sank his teeth into the heel of his hand when upset; it had grown a thick callus. Arthur, the only one who talked to us adults, talked so much we sometimes had to tell him to be quiet. Most of the boys flapped their arms and made animal noises. Most repeated what I said to them with a special affinity for the last word of my sentence. We took them to the zoo, to the beach, to the snow. I knew nothing about special education, goals, performance measures, testing, IEP meetings. My favorite book in college was Virginia Axline’s Dibs in Search of Self, and I, too, wanted to cure children lost inside themselves.
Before I was a mother, I was a school psychologist. In 1984, I was twenty-seven, and I wore skirts and flats or dress slacks and blouses to work, my thick, blonde hair woven into a braid that hung to the middle of my back. I tested deaf kids. I tested hearing kids. I tested poor kids. I tested rich kids. I tested retarded kids. I tested kids with IQs in the 120s and a couple in the 130s. I tested kids to diagnose learning disabilities. I tested kids to diagnose emotional disabilities. I tested to qualify kids for special education. I tested kids in windowless supply rooms with buzzing florescent lights. I tested kids in a dank custodian’s closet, the door propped open with an aluminum bucket. I worked at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Seven schools my first year. I drove from school to school to school to school, my test kits in the trunk of my Datsun Honeybee
As a newborn, my son, Benjamin, rarely looked directly into our faces. Babies are supposed to prefer human faces to other shapes, I’d read the studies, but for months he explored the outline of our heads. “He’s staring at our auras,” my partner said. “Maybe he’s still connected to a higher consciousness,” I said, trying for a joke. But something niggled at the edge of consciousness. Something I’d read a long time before in a textbook about child development. Something was off.
I returned to work half-time. In one hand, I carried my test kit, and in the other I lugged my rented breast pump. I felt like a pack horse climbing the stairs to my office-a dusty book storage room in the elementary school-where I put up my TESTING: DO NOT DISTURB sign and locked the door three times a day so I could empty my stinging, dripping breasts.
A teacher asked me for help with a deaf autistic boy in her class. For a half hour, I sat on a kid-sized chair and watched him lick the salt off his potato chips, rub his forehead with his palm, and sign "more" to his teacher. I had been a school psychologist for two whole years, and, although I had not worked with any autistic children, I once played with autistic kids at a recreation program, and, at the time, I felt pretty good about the advice I gave her: "Reward him when he signs to you." Later, I overheard her telling a colleague I hadn't helped at all. I was crushed.
Ben rejected four pacifiers of different textures-short and nubby, fat teardrop, even the vanilla flavored one from the hospital---demanding instead the tips of our pinkies, sucking greedily until our fingers puckered like topographical maps, before, finally, he dozed. For a year, I nursed him to sleep at night by lying on my side in bed, making sure he had dropped into deep sleep so he wouldn't awaken when I moved him to his bed.
"He hasn't crawled on all fours yet," I told the pediatrician long after Ben should have met that milestone. He had met the others on time. He was babbling, pointing, smiling at us. "He scoots across the room, but he drags his body with his right arm; we call it the Marine crawl." I chuckled, but, like many worried parents who consult charts on child development, I had feared that the doctor would note "delayed motor skills" in Ben's chart. But, because of my training in neuropsychology, I also worried that by not crawling Ben was missing a crucial step in brain development, that it meant he would have a learning disability or something worse, when he got to school. I'd read a book once about an autistic child being manipulated into crawling motions by four volunteers six times a day to rewire his brain. It was called Delgado patterning, but I couldn't remember whether it had worked. "Don't worry," the doctor said. "Lots of kids skip crawling." And, as if he'd read my mind, he added, "And they turn out fine."
Causes Kathy Briccetti Supports
Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society
Women's Educational Media