Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Who is Her Teacher There?

Wylie experienced kindergarten in a special day class taught by Miss Dana. She was another gifted Speech and Language therapist that would make such a difference in Wylie’s life. Educational services for children like Wylie were initially provided by the county in our area; therefore, this particular class had children with various diagnoses ranging from high functioning autism spectrum disorders to Downs Syndrome, to other physically limiting cases. One of the highlights of that year was the class play. It was a classic retelling of “The Three Little Pigs”. Wylie was cast as the Big Bad Wolf.

The costumes were adorable and included color-dyed t-shirts with the name of the character stamped on them (Wylie’s was brown with the letters “w-o-l-f” in black) and little ears glued to headbands. A program was distributed with the featured actors and everyone’s photo and credits. Picture this: a dramatic play starring kids who, for the most part, don’t maintain eye contact nor speak clearly and are given to outburst, tantrums, or emotional come-aparts. As I think of it, that sounds just about right for Hollywood! The props were excellent: card board boxes big enough for the “pigs” to hide in painted to resemble straw, sticks, and bricks. The curtain was two sheets painted with whimsical designs. What a delight this experience was for us and for Wylie. He nailed his performance, “Little Pig, Little Pig, let me in!” and then, “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff...” never before were the lines uttered with such precision and character. It was a milestone for Wylie and the other children.

One of the other children in this class had struggled with a weakened heart most of her life. Although I don’t know her exact diagnosis, the heart problem had caused her other difficulties and she obviously could not learn in a traditional environment. Her name was Hayleigh. Over Christmas break, Hayleigh was to have an operation (not the first) and the children were aware she might miss a bit of school. Tragically, she would not return. Her body was not strong enough to survive the surgery. Everyone was struck with grief. The teachers thoughtfully sent a letter home so we could prepare our child for Hayliegh’s noticeable absence once they returned to class. I considered the subject carefully before approaching Wylie.

In our family, we believe children go to heaven when they die and have taught our own kids that Jesus loves the little children…just like the song. I decided to be pragmatic when I began the conversation with Wylie.

“Wylie, you know Hayleigh, your friend from school” I said as gently as I could.


“She won’t be coming to school anymore” I explained.

Wylie asked “Is she staying home?”

I said “No”.

Wylie asked “Where is she going to school then?”

I said “In heaven.”

Without missing a beat Wylie says

“Oh, who is her teacher there?”

This opened the door for a thoughtful conversation about Hayleigh’s “change of school”. I could tell Wylie was a bit sad she was no longer going to be in his class, however the full realization of heaven and what happens to us when we die was not on his radar…yet. It was (and is) a subject he would come back to in the future. This was one of many examples of Wylie’s literal thinking and speaking.

Though these children live in their private imaginary worlds most of the day, they sometimes refuse to enter yours. This makes irony and joke-telling relatively useless and can lead to situations where typical parent-child roles are reversed. For example, that same holiday season after the “Three Little Pigs”, our neighbors built an elaborate display of Santa and his reindeer in their front yard complete with a stuffed Santa and Mrs. Claus riding shot gun in the sleigh. One morning, pulling out of our drive, I observed Mrs. Claus was missing. I commented on her absence and wondered aloud if she was up at the north pole helping Santa with the toys. Wylie stopped smoking long enough to clue-me-in: “Mom-Mom, they are just plush toys”. After a pause and quick glance in the rearview mirror at McKenna, the car erupted in laughter. We often find ourselves as a family entertained by Wylie’s wit, quips and questions. It is one of the delightful zigzags of the Asperger mind.

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