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Joseph burst through the door yesterday, excitement on his face.

“You won’t believe what we saw!” he exclaimed.

“What did you see?” I asked.

“I saw — we saw — we — I — we saw a, um, a squirrel. No! Um, we saw a little chimpanzee!”

He’s been watching the movie Summer of the Monkeys, so I figured he was borrowing some of their script and trying to adapt it, more or less, to his life. It was very cute, and it was fun to see him so expressive, stammering around with personal pronouns and using his imagination. In the movie, the main character is a boy who spends quite a bit of time out in nature by himself. Suddenly Joseph is feeling better — and braver — about being alone out on our land. Nice!

The first month of this summer was hectic. Joseph was in a special program for high-functioning kids who might regress if they didn’t have extra schooling, so he was up early every day, catching the short yellow bus at 7:30am and getting delivered back after lunch.

He picked up some really bad habits at that program. Summer school recesses had him interacting, not just with his class, but with kids like the non-verbal ten year-old who still wears a diaper and makes odd sounds. Joseph will screw up his face to look just like this kid and then mimic the sounds — perfectly, I’m sure. Which would be okay in private, but he’ll also happily do it in public. So we’re down at the hotel breakfast room on our vacation and he breaks into a loud rendition of “Unnhhh, ughhhh, ughhhhhhhhhh!”with a screwed-up face. Naturally, other people take notice and try not to stare at the severely-impaired kid. But they do anyway.

Sigh. Perhaps this was the last year for Joseph to do the summer program.

Joseph does pretty well academically, but math has been difficult. A friend referred me to a program called Addition in Minutes, which we’ve been spending 20-30 minutes on daily. Joseph is finally learning his math facts (e.g., memorizing), and I am experiencing the lure of homeschooling. To get how my kid learns, to tailor things to that. To take our time when we need to, to hurry past when it’s easy. To sit down and study as it fits into our rhythm. It has many good pieces.

Before Joseph even started school, I looked seriously into homeschooling. An Education Specialist talked me out of it, though. She maintained that Joseph needed as much social practice as he could get, so public school would be the way to go.

I trust Joseph. If he is feeling good and confident at school, we’ll continue there. If and when things go asunder, it’ll be time to have another look at homeschooling. Meanwhile, I’m much enjoying our math time together. It brings us closer.

RDI puts a lot of emphasis on apprenticeship. Most kiddos naturally understand that Mom and Dad are guides and teachers, and they are (generally) happy and eager to learn. Not necessarily so with kids on the spectrum, so we actually work on helping our kids become apprentices. I’ve noticed a nice shift in Joseph this summer, where he is more willing to listen to me and learn from me. Simple things, like how much 3/4 is on a measuring cup, or harder things, like how to fix the wheel on the ottoman.

chickenJoseph is really eager to have a farm. We are going to start (and possibly end) with half a dozen chickens, which will be another great way to work on apprenticeship. This Saturday we’re going to visit a couple of friends who already have chickens, and, as adults, model what it is to be in apprentice mode ourselves. We’ll build the chicken coop as a family, and, when the chooks arrive, Joseph will play a big part in their feeding and care. I’m feeling pretty excited about the opportunities this endeavor will create!

So all in all, a good summer. As they say in RDI, good enough. Not perfect, but good enough. I am content with that.

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When your kid gets an early diagnosis of autism, one of the questions that looms in front of you — that wakes you up at night and ruins your meditations and taunts you for never doing enough to “fix” your kid — is this:

Can my kid make it in a mainstream classroom?

Making it in a mainstream class stands for so much: normality first and foremost, and functionality, and competence, and capability — to say the least. There is a lot riding on making it in a mainstream classroom.

But, having been in mainstream kindergarten for three days now, it looks like it really stands for a lot of other things. Things like following directions, sitting still, watching the teacher, raising hands, answering questions, working on your own, working with others, and speaking only when spoken to.

I’m going to hazard a guess that, eventually, Joseph will be able to do most or all of these things. In only a few days he is already getting the routine, learning to raise his hand and pay more attention to the teacher. The aid stands over him and works with him constantly, and he is learning a lot from her.

So I’m supposed to feel happy — aren’t I? It’s kindergarten. It’s not just the ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. And it looks like Joseph will be okay at it.

But here’s one other thing:

One of the yamas that yoga discusses is ahimsa, which translates into English as nonviolence. The obvious practice of ahimsa is not killing, hurting or maiming other creatures. But ahimsa can take place on very subtle levels —  including the practice of not harming another person’s enthusiasm.

And as I watch the teacher and the aid shushing the kids yet again, or telling a kid (usually a boy) to sit back down, or to keep their eyes on their paper, or to put the pencil down and wait, or to scoot up to the table, or whatever, I feel, well, torn.

I mean, of course the kids need to learn their manners and discipline and the art of listening. But “eyes on the teacher” doesn’t mean they’re actually watching. And “pencils down” when they’re quietly doing something fun and creative just seems wrong. When did we get so controlling and conformist?

There is another special needs kid in the room. She has been told what to do so much that you can see she just wants to explode. She is just barely holding it in. Some of the kids — boys, in particular — look so bored. Is this Joseph’s eventual fate: suppression and boredom? Is this what we’ve worked so hard for him to do?

It’s interesting to see the difference between what RDI teaches (“Oops! You forgot something!”) and what they do at school (“Remember to push your chair in!”). RDI wants the kids to observe, to reference, to think for themselves. The school? They want the kids to push their chairs in.

Certainly Joseph can learn to follow orders and to do things “right.” That’s not usually a high-functioning autistic kid’s problem. Can they — will they — slow down and let him figure something out by himself? Can they — will they — encourage him to pretend? Can they — will they — scaffold him during recess, when he doesn’t know how to interact with the other kids?

I don’t want a teacher who just controls and instructs. I want a teacher to fall in love with my kid’s potential.

I’m being harsh. I’m being Mother Bear, up on my hind legs, feeling protective of my cub.

Let’s start again: Joseph is in kindergarten. He likes it! He told me today that he’s got a new girl he loves (he loved someone at preschool). The other kids seem open to him. What surprises me is that quite a few other kids have special needs, too — though not autism — and he fits in a lot better than I expected. He is adjusting. He is hungry to learn. He keeps bragging about the fact that he’s in kindergarten now.

So the problem lies not with Joseph. It’s me who is having existential angst. And maybe, after a year or two, when Joseph can go without an aid, we can transfer him to one of the more alternative schools around. One that helps his mind to blossom, exercises his body and nourishes his soul.

God willing.

Just now I laid by my son as he fell asleep. I turned to watch him as his eyes closed and his breath evened out to sweet, rhythmic ebbs and flows. I felt such love in my heart for this amazing soul, and deep gratitude for the very difficult but profound journey we’ve had with him.

In some self-growth group I was in — can’t even remember which now — we used to say, “Trust the process.”

That’s it, isn’t it? Trust the process. Trust the journey. Trust God.

Trust.

Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself applies not only to kindergarten. For me, in my journey, in my life right here and right now, it needs to also be applied to trust.

Not ideas about trust, but trust itself.

*title originally created by the poet Wallace Stevens

Autism and Spirituality: the Dance

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