There I was, standing in the corner scared out of my mind as nearly one-hundred 6th graders came into the room. To be honest, I didn't want to be there as, I mean, what can I say to 6th graders about Asperger Syndrome? I've grown comfortable talking to parents, doctors, teachers, and police officers, but kids? "Oh my!"
This was my third presentation talking to kids and the first two times turned out much better than I expected as shown by last year's post Aaron vs. 5 graders. So yes, I was nervous, anxious, and absolutely sure this was going to end in nothing short of a train wreck. With that being so why did I agree on doing it? Well, for one it is my job, but secondly, and more importantly, what if it actually went well?
I was introduced and I stood in front of the room and my anxiety was at a near all time high, a point not seen since my very first presentation. It was one thing to speak to 25 5th graders, but this was almost 100 kids. 100! If I bombed and messed up that would be 100 sets of rolling eyes.
After I introduced myself I changed it up. The hurdle I faced with the 5th graders was that I had no idea how to begin. Today I started by asking them what they knew about autism/Asperger Syndrome. This opened the door for me to share my stories of when I was in school. I kept my sense of humor that I do in my normal presentation hoping that it would connect and it did; one minute I'm talking about the sensory issues of fire drills and the pain it caused and the next minute I've got laughs as I recount some of my odder school moments and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
After about 30 minutes of me sharing stories I opened the floor for questions and this is always a scary time as because, when there are no questions, I have no idea what to say. Thankfully one person asked a question, and in fact this was a great opening question, "Does autism and/or Asperger run in families?" I smiled a huge grin and said, "Wow, great question!" and I proceeded in explaining that, while research may be leaning towards a genetic cause, we don't know what causes autism. This also allowed me to share what the rates of autism are. The shock in their eyes, when I said that when I was born the rates were 1 in 1500 to today's 1 in about 100 (1 in 83 in Missouri), was priceless.
The questions continued and I was holding back tears. Yes tears because I knew they had listened, but not only listened but rather cared! I was warned beforehand that 6th graders don't have the best of attention spans and that I shouldn't take offense if there's small talk or if we needed to end early because the attention just wasn't established. I was sure this would happen, but question after question was asked. And the questions weren't irrelevant, each question was amazing. Even the SRO (student resource officer) asked a question! One student asked, "What are some of the ways you cope when you get anxious?"
I lost track of time and when there were still 13 hands up the school counselor said time was sadly up. It was the fastest 45 minutes of my life, and perhaps the most amazing as well. So many of the kids as they walked by me thanked me. I remember when I was 6th grade and we weren't the nicest of bunch, but this group of kids seemed very sincere. Then, as more kids were walking by, a kid in the front row told me that he too had Asperger Syndrome so I smiled and asked, "Was what I said like you?" He responded with words that I might never forget, "Yes, just like me. JUST LIKE ME! Thank you... thank you!" Once again I held back the tears.
One of my mottoes says that, "understanding is the foundation for hope." A lot of the questions asked wanted to know why I do the things I do. They've probably seen some of the quirks of the spectrum and that was the baseline for the questions. In this forum they didn't ask in a negative way but rather truly wanting to understand the spectrum. This gives me so much hope! If there isn't understanding there can be a lot of friction between the spectrum and the normal world. In my experiences talking with 5th-8th graders is that understanding is possible and wanted. With that being so I have so much hope that this current generation in school right now will have a much better understanding of the autism spectrum. Through understanding will come tolerance and also, when a teacher asked me, "Aaron, if you could go back in time what would you tell your classmates about Asperger Syndrome?" and I stated something along the lines of that I could learn so much from them if they just gave me the chance. I never intended on being mean or rude, but it was that I just didn't know and with a little coaching and understanding I might just learn from them. Without a doubt, from what those 100 6th graders showed me by their questions, is that while I may not be able to go back in time the future generations might just be able to do what those in the past were unaware of a. Yes, once again, I am holding back tears.