6

I had just sat down to lunch.  A spoonful of leftovers on the way to my mouth, I had just punched in my   passcode to unlock the iPad and see what the rest of the world was up to when I heard my cell phone ringing.  By the time I found my bag and then found it in my bag, the dot was lit up to let me know i had a new voicemail message.  One missed call.  

The school.  

I didn't freak out until I saw that there was also a call logged with the school's number at 8:50 this morning.  Had I missed that one too? In the two seconds it took for me to realize that one was outgoing and the other incoming, my heart skipped a beat and a ball of panic rose in my throat.  But then I remembered that I had made that call, to the school as I was heading home (Aaron's misplaced his PE hoodie, could they keep an eye out, could I order a new one, etc).  Exhale, call the school back.  The receptionist was just suggesting that it might have been the uniform shop calling back to confirm the details on the hoodie order (I hadn't yet checked the voicemail) when the house phone rang.  We trilled out goodbyes and I answered the other phone.  

"Mrs. Tulino?  It's Mrs. D (the headistress).  I was wondering if you might be in town today?  Aaron's been in a physical altercation and we think it might be best if he were to be picked up early today."

My heart sank.  I choked out an "Okay, sure.  What's happened?" as I grabbed shoes and began scanning frantically for my keys.  

"The children were sent to wash for lunch, there was an issue at the bathroom door and Aaron lashed out and struck two children.  Everyone is okay, but Aaron is struggling to calm down.  We've got him in a quiet space with lego right now, so don't rush, but I think it would be best if you picked him up early today."  

We talked through some more details, mostly because I was frantically trying to work out if something had happened this morning or in the past few days that might have sparked him off, but neither of us could quite put our finger on a cause.  The morning teacher would be gone by the time I would arrive to pick him up, but Mrs. D offered to ask her to call me during the afternoon if there was anything she might be able to add some clarity.

When I got to the school, Aaron had returned to his classroom and the class was just preparing to go out to PE.  The headmistress was in the adjoining room.  The afternoon teacher let Aaron know I was there so he could gather his things, then showed me into the room with Mrs. D.  A few more points had come up as they had further investigated the incident -- a thrown book during lesson time, an initial refusal to redo some work, a third child struck during the lunch break.  But, she was quick to add, Aaron had calmed himself down and been able and willing to discuss the issues respectfully.  He had even taken responsibility for hitting the child during playtime -- "I got caught up in the game and really didn't want to be it anymore so I tagged her too hard."  The problem with Aaron staying for the afternoon, she explained, was equal parts worry for the safety of the other children and concern that he might be at the end of his tether.  We agreed that there was no point in setting him up for failure, I would take him home.  I would use the extra time together to see if I could ferret out what had brought on the initial outburst; the morning teacher would talk to me in the morning and add her perspective to whatever conclusions I might have drawn by then. No further action was requested by the school and there was no reason for Aaron to miss school tomorrow.  

During the drive up I turned over every possibility that came into my head.  Potential causes, temporary solutions while we looked for the root cause(s).  It didn't take much effort to guess that many small people in a small space, all hurrying to get to lunch and then out to play were not such a great combination for a kid whose hypersensitivites have him on constant high alert for threat (perceived or not).  Simple solution:  don't put him in that environment.  I asked Mrs. D if I could provide Aaron with a small bottle of hand sanitizer to use at lunchtime rather than having him join the bathroom queue.  She agreed to talk it over with the morning teacher, but barring any concerns from her, thought it would be worth a try.

Weeks back, knowing that this time of year is traditionally the hardest for us, behaviour wise, I had asked Mrs. D to consider the option of "flexi-schooling" through the remainder of the term (until the Christmas break).  Aaron would continue to attend school normally most days, but I could easily shift my schedule to pick him up early (or even skip) one day each week if the school thought that the break might be useful for him.  We don't worry (too much) about Aaron academically and, in any event, I can work with him to complete any school work that he might miss.  I have the training, I have the materials, I have every confidence that I can teach him.  

What I lack (and the reason we put him back into a school setting in the first place) are other children.  Social skills are very difficult to teach to an only child in a foreign setting.  There are no natural playmates, no sibling, no cousins, and the neighborhood children are busy at the neighborhood school.  While I can teach him the concepts, he misses out on critical opportunities to practice.  School provides those opportunities in one stop.  However, if Aaron has tapped out of his quota of tolerance for the day, then the environment quickly shifts from beneficial to overwhelming.  Too much of a good thing.  

Right now, Aaron sees school as a place where he is safe (physically and emotionally) and successful.  I will do everything in my power to guard against him going back to the place where the thought of going to school was enough to curl him into a moaning, rocking shadow on the entryway floor.  So I suggested that we consider alternative approaches if and when it started to look like Aaron might need help with coping.  It was in that spirit, I believe, that Mrs. D called me today.  Recognizing that Aaron could spread his wings no further today, it was time to return him to the safety of the nest so that he could rest, recover, and try again tomorrow.  I believe that was her intention because at the end of our discussion she asked if I would be willing to come in to Aaron's class and share with his teachers and classmates what (little) I know about what makes him tick.  Could I help the students understand how to help create a safe environment for all of them to enjoy?  

We (strongly) suspect that Aaron is autistic.  Where he falls along that vast spectrum I don't know.  Certainly on the "more verbal" end of the scale, but as understanding of ASD changes, the terminology shifts, so I am reluctant to label him "high functioning" or "Aspergers" at least until we have the official diagnosis paperwork in our hands.  Our current position on the testing waiting list has us looking for the next step sometime between January and April 2015.  I am hopeful that I will get the opportunity to talk with his class long before then.  So for now my struggle is this:  how can I present a picture of neurodiversity to a group of eight and nine year-olds without stamping labels on foreheads and further alienating my sweet, amazing, funny, passionate, headstrong little weirdo?


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