Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A real autism expert

Teddy Willis is an eleven-year-old boy with autism. Because April is Autism Awareness Month, Teddy thought it might provide him the perfect opportunity to talk with his classmates about autism. If other children understood autism, he thought, perhaps they would be kinder to him and to other children who have it.

Unfortunately, Teddy's plan didn't play out the way he'd hoped it would. According to an article in the Bucks County Courier Times,
During a morning meeting last week, when a teacher talked about autism, Teddy raised his hand to share his story. But he said he was taken aside and told that autism is something “personal” he should keep to himself.

Teddy doesn't understand what's wrong with talking about autism.

The disorder is just a part of who he is. Sort of like how some people have red hair and others are better at math.

Teddy's school principal doesn't seem to share his perspective, explaining her position by saying, “There are other children in classrooms who don't realize they are different than anyone else. I need to look at the privacy of others.”

In other words, it seems that the principal thought it would be in students' best interest to: 1) deny Teddy an opportunity for self-advocacy and empowerment; 2) forego a significant learning opportunity for neurotypical children - not just an opportunity to learn about autism, but also an opportunity to engage in conversation about sensitivity and about appreciating difference; and 3) forfeit the potential for autistic students to be better understood because, she believed, some of them might be unaware that they are misunderstood.

I'm afraid that the principal's unspoken message to Teddy - and to all of the students she is trying to protect - might have been this: Autism is not just a part of who you are. It is not something you should share with others. There is something wrong with autism. There is something wrong with you.

I won't make the same mistake. If Teddy won't be allowed to talk to his classmates, then I'll follow the lead of other bloggers who are giving Teddy the opportunity to speak to a much wider audience.

Listen to Teddy's words here. Then pass them on.

Happy Autism Awareness Month, Teddy. And thank you for sharing your story with us.

Edited to add: I've posted an update on Teddy here.


mel said...

I am so glad I read your blog tonight. My post for Teddy is up.

Lisa/Jedi said...

How ironic. My son Brendan (11) & I were just talking yesterday about starting his own blog, where he can share his stories & also his perspectives on being autistic... a continuation if the self-advocacy he began in 4th grade when he was invited by his teacher to speak to his class about his autism (& Tourettes & OCD), which he's continued in different situations since then. How fortunate we are that Brendan goes to the school he does. How sad that Teddy's being censored by ignorance. Thanks so much for spreading this story, MOM...

ElizabethJ said...

How sad for Teddy! Reading this makes me happier than ever that my son (age 14, with Asperger's) is in the loving and supportive school system that he is. He has never been afraid to share with his classmates about his AS. In third grade, I went to his class and read them "Asperger's Huh?" and then Chris and I answered questions from his classmates.

In sixth grade, Chris met one of his best friends when they were doing classroom introductions. K stood up and said that he was autistic, and then Chris stood up and said that he was, too.

In middle school, Chris has written essays for English class about what it's like to have AS and has been encouraged to share those with his peers.

I didn't realize how fortunate we were.


kyra said...

thank you SO MUCH for sharing that. i loved it. i love teddy. it makes me sad, angry, and worried to hear how the teacher reacted. this is an incredibly brave and articulate boy with a huge huge heart, spirit, and pounds of self-awareness, wisdom and courage. why or why SILENCE HIM???

it IS saying, "something is wrong with you because you have autism." shame on them. shame.

i would have exploded had this happened to my son. at this tender age of 6, as he is just beginning make sense of himself, his strengths and challenges, as he says words like autism and aspergers out loud with fragile understanding and awareness but NO shame, i hate to think of him walking out into that world where there is so much misunderstanding, such FEAR and fractured sense of self and humanity, because that is where this comes from.

mcewen said...

Yup I watched the whole thing yesterday [?] somewhere [?]
However, to be controversial [and why not] especially since I don't know the details [uninformed] I would imagine that the Principal like me, spoke before she the opportunity to think it through [I think we've all done that occasionally]
I don't think many Principals [unfortunately] are equipped / trained to deal with kind of development [and I use the term advisedly]
I don't know how many competing thoughts they have, but I would guess that it would be
a] protect all the children
b] avoid law suits
Lets face it, there is always someone waiting in the wings to sue the School District, which may result in big payouts for someone and less funds for everything else.
Now I'm going to jump back on my fence.
Cheers dears, and Teddy

MOM-NOS said...

Mcewen, I think that an essential part of being a good educator is having the ability to recognize and seize teachable moments. I also think that there is a real danger to having a default setting of "no" in response to students' (or colleagues' or employees' or spouses' or children's) initiative, requests, or suggestions that are "outside the box."

There may have been a number of very good reasons why that particular moment was not the right moment for Teddy to share his story. There may have been many factors that the staff needed to consider, and perhaps they would have been negligent if they failed to consider them. But if that was the case, since the teacher was "taking him aside" anyway, why couldn't her response have been, "Thank you so much, Teddy. It would be great for you to share your story with other children, and I'd like to hear it, too. Why don't you and I talk about this after lunch so we can decide the best way for you to share your story, and then set up a special time for you to do it?"

Erin said...

That pricipal should let Teddy teach her something.
How strange that line of logic is.

MileMasterSarah said...

This made me cry because well, I don't know. It made me sad because he wasn't given that opportunity to share in the environment he really needed to share in. thanks for sharing, and my post for teddy will be up soon as well.

for what it's worth said...

How truly sad. Here is a golden opportunity to share the diversity of one of this school's student's and the principal turns it away.
Not to blow my own horn, but that is the exact premise I am referring to in my post about Virginia Tech. We need to embrace and encourage all diversity in our schools, communities, churches etc. Who knows, the strength of Teddy's words may have encouraged someone else to speak up changing his or her own thoughts on who they are. Somebody go yell at this principal. She missed the boat!

Club 166 said...

I'm glad to see that the school came to its senses, and let Teddy give his presentation.

AnnieBooks said...

Asperger’s and HFA is an overwhelming existence! Students and adults with the disorder balance the constant struggle of “Why can’t I just…” Why can’t I just be normal? Why can’t I just get started? Why can’t I just fit in? The anxiety and emotional trauma of knowing you are different, but not really knowing that others don’t feel the same struggles is suffocating. How very sad, that given the perfect opportunity to share, we are frequently told that this information should be an ebarassement to us, rather than merely a difference. Wonderful for you to share, and how proud you must be. Thank you.
Michelle Fattig

Anonymous said...

Update on Teddy from Today's Philadelphia Inquirer. http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local/pa/bucks/nabes/20070805_Day_camp_promotes_acceptance.html

Denise Rae Kouzoujian said...

I was turned onto your site today by Rick, a gentleman in my writing group and follower of your blog. I believe that there are no accidents in life and today-- under the vibrant colors of his umbrella and, at a sad moment in life-- I learned of your brilliant blog. I am forever in awe of how our lives are entwined and, how people are meant to learn about one another.

I have an eight-- soon to be nine year old son Jack with high functioning autism and, he too understands and often wants to share his own feelings about difficulties and/or unique talents that that he has found in living a life with autism. Jack has also shown a keen sense of understanding about other people's differences.

I only hope that those around us will learn to embrace and accept the unknown as we and our children do.

Thank you for doing what you do! You have created a wonderful blog and I look forward to reading more about your family's journey and those of your readers.

And, thank you to Rick for sending me your way and to Terry, who sudden death made a significant change in my own life-- may you rest in peace.