Thursday, April 14, 2016

I See All These Amazing Programs for Children

TPGA is observing Autism Acceptance Month by featuring accounts from autistic people about the differences accommodations (or lack thereof) make in their lives. Today's story is from Mel Baggs, about the assumption that all kids should be able to work and play in groups -- and that kids who can't cope with group scenarios are just being difficult.

Mel Baggs

I see all these amazing programs for children

Like really, really cool stuff, stuff that looks fun and educational at the same time, stuff that looks far more educational and far more rewarding than the school system, etc.

I see them in documentaries, in videos online, in articles, etc.

But then I’m always stopped short by something.

ECS Classroom
Photo © Norton Gusky. Creative Commons License.
[image: Schoolchildren of various races talking while gathered around a table.]
Unless something fundamental changed about children between then and now. And in how children are treated, both by each other and by the adults who do programs like that.

I would always be the child that they don’t show. Because I would be angry and irritated at best, screaming and crying at worst, and somewhere in between trying to negotiate incredibly unpleasant social situations without getting blamed for it. But always getting blamed for it, because everyone always knew I was That Kid, the one who was always getting into it with other kids in situations like this. And the fact that it was usually other kids instigating the situation didn’t take away from the fact that I was perceived as the cause because I was always right there in the middle of the problem. And because that’s just how adults think about the one kid who seems to keep fucking up their plans for the day, whose expressions of distress are neither cute nor conveniently timed. And because as often as not, when the teachers were kids they were probably the ones singling out kids like me to pick on.

(This is how one of the worst bullies I ever encountered got an award for “good citizenship,” not once but multiple times, whereas my citizenship grade was almost always my lowest grade.)

And it never occurred to anyone that maybe part of the problem was forcing me to take part in “amazing learning experiences” in large groups of kids who were hostile to my very existence. That maybe smaller groups, with kids who were not hostile, in environments that were quieter, would work better. Or even having me and some other kids work alone. Rather than assuming that all kids can and should be able to automatically work together in groups, and that any problems that occurred were the fault of whatever kid had trouble fitting in.

Because as it is, I feel horribly cynical sometimes.

Because I look at videos of kids having these amazing experiences and seeming so happy.

And I wonder which kids are not being filmed.

And I wonder if the model students in these scenarios, the ones who get filmed the most, I wonder how many of them are picking on the kids who aren’t fitting in so well.

And I hate that my experiences make me ask these questions.

And I hate feeling cheated out of experiences like these because of what my experiences actually were as a child.

The one thing that I vowed as a child, that I would never forget when I grew up, was that childhood was not an idyllic peaceful carefree period of time, the way adults always said it was.

You know, I know that things along the lines of “It Gets Better” have drawn a lot of criticism for supposedly telling kids that things don’t have to get better now because they’ll be better when they grow up. Which is not, I think, necessarily what such things are telling kids, mind you. But everyone acts like they automatically mean that.

At any rate, I know that criticism of it and I’ve heard that criticism of it. But as a kid I really fucking needed to hear that it would genuinely get better for me, at some point in the future. Because thinking it could not possibly get better left me feeling completely hopeless. And being completely hopeless is not a good way to live. I don’t know what kind of life other people lived that they think that it’s better to say nothing at all to kids going through hard times, than to tell them it will get better in the future. Like, entire chunks of the worst parts of my life would literally never have happened if someone could have shown me certain things about how the adult world could work for disabled people, just as one example.

So like, the fact that things will potentially get better in the future is not enough. But it’s better than saying nothing at all, holy crap. And it’s not like saying things will get better in the future is incompatible with making things better now. (Besides the fact that the knowledge things could get better already helps things get better now. Not enough, but it does help.)

Anyway, I wish a lot of these opportunities that are out there for kids, were out there for adults as well. Especially for those of us who couldn’t happily take part in such things – or couldn’t take part in them at all – as children. And I wish that I wasn’t always looking for the one kid they don’t want to show too closely, or at all. Because I can’t imagine that all these groups of kids are all uniformly happy and enthusiastic when taking part in these programs for kids.

And like… I really, really would have benefited from hands-on types of learning opportunities, but whenever those opportunities were presented, they were presented in ways that were inaccessible to me, mostly because of the social expectations that went along with them. So people got convinced that it was a learning style thing, sometimes, when it wasn’t at all. It was a social situation thing.

I just hate looking at those things, imagining how wonderful it would be to take part in them, and then suddenly remembering what it really felt like to take part in that -- always being on the verge of crying, always being terrified or enraged or both, always being overloaded, and always being in either physical or emotional pain. And always being the one at fault for all of it somehow.


Republished with the author's permission.