Finn’s IEPs are always pretty memorable.
A towheaded ten-year old who is almost constantly in motion, Finn’s primary interests include technology, office accoutrements, and talking extensively about highly preferred topics; he is also exceptionally inquisitive and feels a very strong need to be central to almost everything. Given that, I’ve always had him as a participating member of the IEP process–Finn starts the meeting off with a personal slideshow and oral narrative about his accomplishments and challenges, then opens the floor for a question and answer session before graciously exiting and letting the rest of us deal with the paperwork involved.
Today’s meeting went much as the previous one had, in the beginning. This is me at recess, at social studies, we do this. I’m proud of being a fourth grader, but math is sometimes difficult, and look if I press this sequence of buttons I can make the slideshow do…oh, sorry, that’s a distraction, and this is me at pe and I don’t really know what I want to learn next.
Questions and answers. Dad bringing up something that’s come up a lot, with everyone around the table, in a lot of different ways. Finn’s dawning realization of himself in the world–his slow recognition that a part of who he is is not, exactly, how everyone around him might be, a growing awareness that he relates to the world and the people who are in it in a way that doesn’t lockstep with the ways of his peers.
“Finn, why are we all at this meeting? Does everyone get to do a meeting like this?”
“No, of course not. We’re having an IEP.”
“Because I have Asperger’s.” It’s something I’ve processed with him, something Mom and Dad are open about, something his classroom teacher knows and his paraprofessional is trained in–still there’s something a little jarring to me, about Finn saying it so frankly with all of us watching. Mom will tell me, later, that she’s always framed it to Finn in the same kind of way as “I wear size 7 shoes”–she wants it to be just that natural to him. And when she says that, I will think of another boy I worked with once: his parents specifically forbid everyone from talking about it, and so when the boy himself chose it as a research topic in science class, I couldn’t answer directly when he asked if he had “that”.
How open is too open? Not open enough? I don’t know, in that moment, when Dad asks another question.
“Is there anything you’d like to tell the group about having Asperger’s?”
“Yes. I think living with Asperger’s is okay.”
We all nod, emphatically, and smile at Finn. And then…Dad asks if he has any questions for us.
“I do.” Finn gets a serious look on his face, shifts his feet as he leans against the table, twisting a paperclip in his small, nimble hands. It’s silent for a few seconds. Mom tries to encourage him.
A look of confusion. “I don’t have a gun.”
Dad thinks he’s joking, makes an exaggerated groan. It’s not what I see–what I see is one of the things that has always baffled me about the spectrum. Figurative language, my nemesis, yes, we meet again. Finn, like all my students, has been explicitly taught what it means to be “raining cats and dogs”, to “jump the gun”, to “hold your horses”–but always, these idioms register first on the literal level. The beat of utter perplexity, then the knowing smile as the child retrieves the figurative meaning from the file cabinet marked “weird shit neurotypicals say when they don’t mean it”. Finn, in this moment, is too tightly wound to reach that file. I smile at him. “Ask your question, my friend.”
It takes him a couple seconds, and then it comes out all at once, as he glances around and then stares at the floor. “Would you…would you all…would you like me more if I didn’t have Asperger’s?”
Dead silence in the room. My heart leaps and drops, all at once, and I resist the urge to hug him. This child who has never before framed his actions in terms of their impact on others, who has historically frustrated those around him past the point of tears with his singular emphasis on his own preferences and needs. And now, all our work on perspective taking, all the lessons from Think Social—he finally sees us, seeing him. What a gift. What an awfulness.
Would you like me more if I didn’t have Asperger’s?
“Finn. Look at me.” He raises his eyes from the table, meets mine. Looks away, and I don’t force it any more than I just did.
“Finn, I don’t think it’s possible for me to like you more. I like you, so much, just the way you are. All of you. I’m glad that I know you, exactly how you are.”
The rest of the table chimes in, seconds my vote. We talk about how Asperger’s is a part of the person Finn is, and how if anyone changed it, he wouldn’t be Finn. We appreciate his intelligence, the way his mind works. We promise him that he is likeable, Asperger’s and all.
It is the kind of conversation I cannot even imagine for my previous student with the elephant IEP. The kind of conversation that I don’t have very often, with a poignancy to every word I won’t soon forget. Later, I’ll ask Mom and Dad, “Did you know he had that question? Did you practice it with him, when you rehearsed his ‘report’?” They will both tell me they had no idea. I am amazed, in retrospect, that none of us were crying as we finished Question Time.
It is a gift to be a part of a meeting like that, to be a small, important part of a challenged child’s journey. It reminds me of how crucial it is for me, as I go through my teaching day, to consistently provide my students with clear and unconditional acceptance–because it saddens me that this question found its way into Finn. At the end of the day, though, it’s a question that all of us have–for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world. Would you like me more if. Am I somehow not enough. There are times when the love I feel for Finn is the love I need myself, the love I forget to give to those around me.
But in that moment, around that table, there’s enough love for everybody. Later, for ninety minutes, we’ll discuss how to decrease Finn’s temper tantrums, to build his math fact fluency, to break a multi-paragraph essay into smaller, more manageable steps. But before Finn wraps up his Question and Answer Session, we each look directly at him, and say something to help him understand that he is cared for, exactly as he is. He hugs his mom, his dad, his paraprofessional; I give a firm handshake, the teacher gets a high-five. Finn flashes us all a radiant smile as he excuses himself for the rest of the meeting–his iPad is waiting in the classroom next door.