Wow, I think the universe was listening to me on Tuesday, when I wrote about how I don’t want Jack to change. I think Someone wanted to make sure I meant what I said. By presenting me with what will go down in Guppy family history as The Science Camp Fan Incident.
On Wednesday morning, Jack and I attended an open house for a private math and science preschool here in town. Jack had gone to one of their science camps in June, and he loved it. The married couple who ran the school were affectionate and effective with him, very sweet and encouraging: “Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful son with us. He was the bright spot of our week.” It didn’t hurt, in Jack’s book, that the school has a large ceiling fan in the lobby that Mary, the wife and lead teacher, allowed him to turn on. My boy loves fans.
Science camp had gone so well that at the end of the week, I asked Mary if she had any openings for the regular preschool in the fall. “Oh, I was hoping you’d ask me that!” she said. Jack already attends public preschool, where he has an IEP and a full complement of OT and speech therapy. Plus a great, intuitive classroom teacher with a background in generalized Special Ed. So we were considering the math and science preschool as a supplement to his other schooling. It turned out that the schedules conflicted, and we couldn’t enroll him. Bummer, was the general consensus.
Then two weeks ago, we got an e-mail from Mary. They had an opening in their morning class, which wouldn’t conflict with Jack’s other school. We pretty much jumped on it. I signed him up within a few days and paid the first month’s tuition for September (which I’ll say is a bit steep for six hours a week, but it seemed worth it). It seemed perfect. Mary and her husband Ernie were sweet with Jack. They both have Masters degrees in eduction, his in Special Ed and hers in Literacy. The school focuses on math and science, which Jack seems already naturally drawn to. And they have an inclusive policy about kids with special needs learning beside their peers.
Wednesday morning, at ten o’clock, Jack and I arrived for the open house. It was a chilly, rainy day, especially for August, and the beloved lobby fan was off. Jack became instantly agitated and asked Ernie, who had greeted us, if he could turn it on. Ernie agreed to turn it on for ten seconds and then turned it off, and Jack began to cry and shake. This is not a new story, that a kid with autism freaks out over what seems to the rest of us like no big deal. But fans are his *thing.* And he was already nervous: unfamiliar place, new people, etc. As his face drew down into the real porch-lip heartbreaking look of despair, Mary intervened and turned the fan on for Jack. She even teasingly scolded her husband: “Don’t be upsetting my people,” she said.
The fan was on, so all was well with the world. I will say here that Jack did brilliantly. He sat in a chair at a table and played with green-tinted homemade play dough. Aside from spinning the little plastic rotary cutters and calling them “fans,” he was perfectly calm and looked like any other kid sitting there. There was another mom and boy there, and we introduced everyone. Mary told us about her garden, her jewelry kiln, etc. Jack said something about Helen Oxenbury, a children’s illustrator, and when I started to explain, Mary said, “Oh, I know who she is. My degree’s in children’s literature.” Of course.
After about an hour, I figured it was time for us to go. Jack had met a few other kids and parents. Everyone seemed very nice. After a turn with the Legos, I figured we’d head out. That’s when Mary came to get Jack. She wanted to turn off the fan for a few minutes. “He needs to get used to it,” she said. I couldn’t really disagree. I didn’t think it was reasonable for me to demand that an entire school full of people had to keep a fan running all year long for the sake of my son’s fixation. It is true that he will need to deal with non-ideal situations. But he’s four. And it was the open house. I felt agitated, myself. Jack wanted me to pick him up, and I told him I would hold his hand and walk with him.
His agitation grew with each step. By the time Mary turned the switch off on the fan, Jack was in tears. She walked him back to the classroom and set a timer. “When this goes off, we can turn it back on,” she said. Then she tried to get him to sit down with the Legos and play like everything was fine. For him, it was not fine. His world had just ended. He climbed into my lap, and I could feel him shaking. He turned to me, his eyes wide and full of tears. “We’ll turn it back on in a minute,” he said, nodding, begging me to reassure him. “Yes,” I said. “We’ll turn it back on in a minute.” I rubbed his back and soothed him the best I could until the bell rang.
We walked back out to the lobby, and Mary asked Jack if he wanted to turn the switch back on. He said, “Want me to do it?” Which means that he wanted her to do it. So she did. He wanted to linger and watch the fan, the glorious, resurrected fan. But Mary marched us back to the classroom. I said to her, “He was shaking.” She said something like, “Yes, it was hard for both of you.” The other parents laughed politely. Jack was still very agitated, and he began flapping his arms. I knew that it was his way of regulating himself, of helping himself recover from that trauma. Mary pulled him to her and squeezed his shoulders, legs, and hips. I knew she was trying to help him calm down with deep pressure, one technique to help a kid like Jack restore his proprioceptive sense. But she did it quickly and then stopped.
Mary steered him to a seat at the table, gave him some play dough. He wasn’t interested. He stared at his left hand, which he waved in front of his face so fast, it was a blur. At one point, Mary said, “Quiet hands.” That’s when I stiffened. Still, I didn’t say anything. But I knew that we would either have to talk with her or take Jack out of the school. “Quiet hands” does not fly with my family. Only once did I ever ask Jack to stop flapping his arms. We were on a walk, not long after his diagnosis, and I asked him to turn his arms “off” and just walk. He did stop flapping his arms, but he talked about it the whole time, ashamed and troubled by my request, repeating, “Turn the arms off, Jack. Turn the arms off.” I felt like an asshole. I never did that again.
By the time we left the open house, I was near tears myself. I texted Brian. He texted back my exact sentiments: “Quiet hands – that’s not going to fly.” We first decided to sit down with Mary and Ernie and present them with our philosophy for working with Jack. But the more we talked about it, the more I remembered Mary’s general demeanor. The garden, the jewelry kiln, the degree in children’s literature. She at no point showed ill will toward Jack or to me, but I sensed deeply that we were at an impasse. We had different ideas about how to react when Jack was scared. And she was the boss at her school.
At one point, I said to Brian, “Well, he does need to be pushed sometimes.” Brian’s response: “Yeah, but how far? This was too far.” He pointed to Jack, who was still flapping his arms and humming to himself, an hour or more after we’d left the school.
The truth is, aside from the “quiet hands” thing, I don’t really fault Mary or Ernie and their methods. But it was too soon, too early in the game, to be challenging Jack, before he was comfortable with them and with that environment. It wasn’t even the first day of school. Maybe he does need to adjust to the fan being off, but right now? And when he gets so upset, doesn’t he deserve more time and space to calm himself down?
I finally sent an e-mail to Mary, telling her we were pulling Jack out of the school. She responded calmly but sadly: “I’m so sorry to hear this. I was looking forward to my time with him.” I was relieved that she was a grown-up about it, but I was also sad. I have no question that removing Jack from her school was the right thing for him. And I am thankful that I made that move before a month or more had gone by. I think I’m just sad because we had all been so hopeful that this would be a great thing for all of us. And it wasn’t.
Oddly, Jack has been very cheerful today. Brian even took him for a haircut, which used to be a huge ordeal. But today, Jack sat by himself on the little booster seat (not in his dad’s lap). He squirmed once or twice, Brian told me, but no screaming or real resistance. When he got home with his new grown-up boy haircut, I gasped. He looked so big! He ran up and down the hall, launched himself onto the couch, and let me tickle him until he ran out of breath.