I’m Dreading April: the Trials of an Autistic Teacher

I’m starting to dread Friday dress down days. When my work admin­is­tra­tion first announced them, everyone rejoiced; one teacher even gave a standing ova­tion. But there’s only so many casual work-appropriate out­fits you can buy on a teacher’s salary, so we started recy­cling clothes. That’s when it became obvious that one spe­cific type of shirt was insanely pop­ular with my fellow teachers.

I turn the corner out of the fac­ulty lounge and –BOOM!—there’s rainbow puzzle pieces forming the word AUTISM. Or maybe it’s the sci­ence teacher’s “I Love Someone with Autism” lan­yard. Or it’s the kinder­garten teacher sporting her Light It Up Blue shirt as she leads her little ones like a line of duck­lings. 

It’s a strange exis­tence, being an autistic adult in a pro­fes­sion over­flowing with autism mommy-ism and mis­in­for­ma­tion. Within these walls, everyone means well. Everyone wants to show their “sup­port” and help raise “tol­er­ance.” And everyone, for the most part, gets it wrong. 

It’s really starting to get to me. 

When I see one of my well-meaning coworkers wearing those dang puzzle pieces, I want to pull them aside and say, as politely as pos­sible, “Autistic people don’t like puzzle pieces, because it implies that there’s a piece of us missing.” 

Butof course, I don’t. 

I’m dreading April. To be spe­cific, I’m dreading the April memo asking for dona­tions to Autism Speaks, because “we should all do our part to raise aware­ness.” I want to scream a long and drawn out, Darth Vader style, “NOOOO!” I want to yell loud and clear that Autism Speaks is a bor­der­line hate group that wants to erase people like me from exis­tence.  

But I don’t. 

I want to tell my spe­cial edu­ca­tion coworkers to let A stim, because it’s not dis­tracting anyone, and it helps him focus.  

But, sur­prise sur­prise, I don’t. 

 I’m sure you’re starting to notice the pat­tern here. 

Maybe I’m a coward, I don’t know. I just can’t figure out how to counter, “Well, I’m a specially trained expert with x years of expe­ri­ence,” with any­thing other than, “Well, I’m actu­ally autistic so I have a better idea of how autistic people’s brains work.”

Call me crazy, but I’ve become accus­tomed to being able to feed my family. I’m scared that ableist prej­u­dice will get me fired if I come out to the wider school com­mu­nity. 

That’s not to say that I’m com­pletely in the closet, so to speak. I’ve told my edu­ca­tion team, the people who are closest to me at work. That’s helped a lot, and not just because they all told me how awe­some I am. Now I get to have con­ver­sa­tions like this one: 

“One time I was talking about a stu­dent,” my team­mate said, “and I called him autistic. The spec ed teacher got really mad and told me I should say child with autism.”  

“You were right the first time,” I said. “Most of us would rather be called autistic.” 

“Okay, good. It’s just so con­fusing because some people say one thing, and I don’t want to offend any­body.” 

I smiled. “Trust me, autistic people aren’t offended if you call us autistic. We already got the memo. We don’t forget we’re people just because you said ‘person’ second.” 

I like con­ver­sa­tions like that one. It makes me feel like I’m helping in my own small way. Especially since there are other, dark times when I feel like my silence is selling out the autistic stu­dents at my school.  

Take M, for example. One time, I observed her in her main­stream class­room. Most of the stu­dents weren’t paying atten­tion to the math lesson, but not M. Her hand shot straight into the air, not just to answer the ques­tion, but to give a detailed expla­na­tion why.  

“Stop talking so much,” her neighbor whined. “You keep saying the same stuff.” 

Looking at M’s face was like looking in the mirror. I know what it feels like when someone said, “You’re repeating your­self.” M was con­fused because in her mind she wasn’t talking too much—she was answering the ques­tion (and I agreed with her; her answer was on point). I empathized with M. I could feel her dis­ap­point­ment and hurt as deeply as a phys­ical wound, because I’ve been there, too. 

At the risk of sounding arro­gant, I highly doubt that my allistic coworkers would’ve spotted this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker across her face. They prob­ably thought she was fine, because she wasn’t melting down. But I saw it imme­di­ately.

Autistic chil­dren need autistic role models and men­tors. They need autistic adults to help guide them through our crazy, beau­tiful, and often fright­ening world. That’s some­thing that the “autism aware­ness” move­ment doesn’t seem to con­sider: the impor­tance of autistic adults. The impor­tance of us, the autistic folk, being the authors of our own nar­ra­tives. Our role in the next gen­er­a­tion.  

I wish I could think of a solu­tion. I love my job, and most of my col­leagues, but it gets so lonely, some­times, being autistic in this envi­ron­ment.