In August of 2012, as many families prepared for the start of a new school year, the editorial team of the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog contacted a few Autistic people (myself included) who’d survived the public school system, and a few non-autistic parents who’d worked hard to help their Autistic children survive the public school system.
What, they asked us, did we wish that we had known, back when we (or our kids) were first starting school?
Our answers were published on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism site on August 27, 2012, in a blog post called Autism and Back-to-School: What Do You Wish You Knew?
As part of my project of making this blog a place where all my various online writings can be easily found, here is a slightly revised and expanded version of my contribution to that post.
Things I Wish I’d Known in Kindergarten
There’s a lot that I learned later on, in adolescence and adulthood, that I wish I’d known in kindergarten and elementary school.
I wish I’d known the things that I later learned through aikido training: the self-regulation and self-defense skills; the ability to both inwardly access and outwardly convey calm centeredness and physical confidence.
And I wish I’d known that I wasn’t alone, that I would eventually find more and more people like me.
By this I mean not only the Autistic community, and the friends I made as a teenager and adult who weren’t Autistic but to whom I could relate in other ways. I also mean that I wish I’d known there were others out there who’d seen what I was seeing and experiencing: the dynamics of institutionalized oppression, privilege, marginalization, injustice, and abuse; the fact that school was clearly constructed to brutalize children into soulless conformity and unquestioning compliance, and to crush, rather than cultivate, genuine creativity and curiosity.
I could see all of this clearly, but I had no words for it, and the fact that I didn’t have the words for it and that no one else seemed to be seeing it left me feeling alienated and furious; the frustration ate at me every day, throughout my elementary school years.
I wish someone had said to me, back then, “Yes, what you’re witnessing and experiencing is institutionalized social injustice; it’s everywhere in the world and it follows the same basic patterns that it has followed throughout history. There are other people who’ve seen it for what it is, who’ve come up with words for it and written about it. These systems of injustice dominate human society, and yes, most people are largely oblivious and complicit. But some people have woken up, and more people will; you’re not alone.”
I wish someone had said all of that to me on my first day of kindergarten.
Never assume a that child isn’t ready to understand such things. Especially not an Autistic or otherwise neurodivergent child (not because we’re necessarily any smarter than neurotypical children, but because there are more likely to be unpredictable discrepancies between what we know and what we’re capable of communicating that we know). To quote one of the common maxims of the Neurodiversity Movement: presume competence.
Sometimes what’s causing meltdowns and rages and “behavior issues” is that a child really does understand.