June 5, 2009
I'm not going to lie. In some ways, it's been a rough year for Schuyler. She held her own academically in school and even managed to pass the reading portion of the TAKS test, but there have been some social pieces that have been hard to manage, and they are the ones about which I've harbored future anxiety for some time. Put simply, Schuyler is attempting to integrate herself into the social structure of neurotypical kids her age, and it's hard. She's been running into obstacles that I don't believe she understands.
I don't think it's happening very much yet; most of her classmates still treat her incredibly well, and they remain fascinated with her. (Not one but two older students asked permission to write their final class reports on her.) But when I pick her up from school, many times she'll point someone out and tell me that they are her friend, but when she tries to say goodbye to them, they will turn away from her deliberately. Schuyler doesn't take the cues and will sit there and repeat her goodbyes to them over and over. Sometimes they will turn and give her the tiniest possible little wave, as if they are embarrassed that the weird kid is calling them out. Mostly they will pointedly ignore her, even if one of the staff says something to them.
I understand. I remember that age, and I remember the social death that could come from associating with someone who your friends didn't care for. I was both the outcast and (now to my shame) the ostracizer at different points of my youth, and I remember how brutal it could be, on either side of the line. And I know that it will only get worse as time goes on.
This has happened before, of course. Schuyler's relationships with neurotypical kids have always been dicey. Even back in Austin, she had one little friend about a year younger than her who treated her pretty shabbily. She would boss Schuyler around, bullying her and lying about her. Not completely grasping the nature of Schuyler's disability, she would sometimes try to get her in trouble by telling her parents and us that Schuyler had said some mean thing or another. (That would be a very impressive trick, especially back then before the Big Box of Words.) One time, in frustration at Schuyler's refusal to be bossed around, this girl bit her.
Schuyler was a much different kid back then, before she began working with her speech device. She was still the ethereal, otherworldly little girl that I talk about in my book. So strange and beautiful, but not entirely ours or entirely in our world, largely lost to us. It was easy for other kids to treat her differently back then, easy to see her not as another kid but as something exotic, like a pet.
Four years later, Schuyler is a changed girl, almost unrecognizable from the one in the book. Despite her disability and her delayed development, Schuyler can pass very easily for a neurotypical nine-year-old now. AAC has given her so much, but it has been this most of all that I think has been the most remarkable to watch.
Schuyler exists in some ways in a strange grey area between special education and mainstream school. She is completely ambulatory, suffers none of the social or tactile anxieties of many autistic children and is unafraid of change or of operating within that neurotypical world. In her special education class, Schuyler doesn't seem to always grasp those differences. She keeps tweaking her little nemesis in her AAC class, for example, largely because she doesn't quite understand this girl's social anxieties which she does not share.
And yet, Schuyler is not capable of existing unassisted in the neurotypical world, and yet she doesn't entirely belong there. Not quite, not yet. Which is fine from a classroom perspective, since she has an aide and her BBoW to bridge much of that gap. But socially, she doesn't accept that there is any reason in the world why her neurotypical classmates wouldn't want her inside their social circles, which are alarmingly well-established even in third grade. It's hard to explain to her that while there probably aren't any good reasons, there are plenty of bad ones and she's going to get a chance to experience them all.
One thing hasn't changed since Schuyler was a remote, odd little girl with a bullying friend back in Austin. While she will stick up for herself and her friends when she feels like they are being mistreated, Schuyler will accept a shocking amount of unkind treatment from someone whom she identifies as her friend. And as a father, that is just as hard to watch today as it was four or five years ago. She's beginning to understand it now, which is probably for the best but nevertheless breaks my heart right in two. A few weeks ago, she got in trouble for hitting one of her neurotypical classmates on the playground. When asked why she did it, her explanation was that the girl wouldn't play with her. Where once she was puzzled, now she's becoming frustrated, even angry.
Schuyler's not blameless. She is in fact far from it, and I recognize that. But the older she gets, the harder it will be to explain why some kids treat her so differently and badly. In some ways, these are issues that are universal for every little kid in every school in the world. But like all things Schuyler, it's the differences that are hard to bear.