Understanding Autism: I See You Now
He gazed at me through unblinking, dark marbles of rage. The eyes were cold, but his face was red hot …a volcano! Memories of a volcano ripping through the earth’s crust crept into the corner of my mind, as the rest of my brain struggled to understand what was happening.
Mum once told me that faces tell stories. An intriguing story was unfolding as lava smoldered behind those intense, marbly eyes.
“What’s wrong Daniel?” called Marcus warily. A whisper, compared with the deafening sound of my heartbeat inside my head. Out of desperation, I took a shaky step forward, as panic bubbled up in my belly. Slowly, a tiny sound emerged from deep within Daniel. Higher, higher, higher, the tiny voice became, until it erupted into a screeching burst of angry noise. The lava was heading my way. Unbelievably, Mr. Chen managed to draw Daniel away from me, towards the door. As he backed his rigid body away, his unforgiving gaze made my legs tremble.
Finally, he maneuvered his way past the bright blue door frame, into the hallway, and out of sight. Fear. Panic. Relief. My belly couldn’t handle any more emotions. Breathing heavily, I slumped down in my chair, carefully lowering my head onto the table. What. Just. Happened?
Chatting with Mum over dinner usually made me feel better. Not this time. She just said her usual thing. “People react to things in different ways.” As I dragged my body off to bed, I was reminded of the time Isabella and I got the same mark for the science project. Isabella cried, and I fist pumped the air like I’d just scored a goal. I thought it was a pretty good mark, but Isabella thought she could have done better. Isabella is a perfectionist.
Fridays were the best! Sport all afternoon. Not today. The weather had its way with my favorite day again. There was a loud groan from the class when Mr. Chen announced that sport was cancelled because of the rain. As I whined to myself and slammed into my chair, I noticed Daniel calmly drawing bridges at his desk. He loves bridges. Naming all of the bridges in our city is one of his party tricks. Nervously, I said hello. And he said, “Hi!” Just the way he normally did, without looking at me, but in his own friendly way.
Before lunch, Mr. Chen talked to me about Daniel, quietly explaining that he had autism. He reassured me that I was not in trouble, that he knew I hadn’t meant to upset Daniel. Relief washed over me like a wave that pushes you all the way back to shore. As Mr. Chen explained autism, the pieces began to fall into place.
Discovery #1: Daniel likes things to be in order. When I returned his colored pencils the day before, I had mixed up the colors. As I recalled how Daniel always grouped his pencils, cool colors at one end, warm colors at the other, it struck me how frustrated he must have felt.
Discovery #2: Daniel needs LOTS of personal space. “When you thank people, say it like you mean it.” Mum’s words had echoed in my head. When I thanked Daniel for lending me his pencils, I had given him a big, hearty pat on the shoulder. Again, not helpful, given Daniel didn’t like people invading his personal space. “The reason he has a desk to himself,” Mr. Chen had explained.
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What I didn’t know was that I had knocked Daniel’s bridge drawings onto the floor, scattering them everywhere. Feeling proud of my big, hearty thank you, apparently I had turned around with so much enthusiastic force, I had caught the pile of drawings with my jacket, creating a cascade of bridges. Daniel always kept his drawings in a neat, alphabetical pile. My face dropped as I continued to realize the distress I had caused.
Other friends would have told me off, but according to Mr. Chen, it was hard for Daniel to find the right words to express how he was feeling. Thankfully, he seemed fine now. Now that everything was back in order. It was like nothing had happened. “He doesn’t hold grudges,” Mr. Chen said. I liked that about Daniel. He had always been a bit of a mystery to me, in his own little world. But as the mystery began to unfold, I realized there was so much more to see.
Despite the fact that Daniel had already arrived in a peaceful place, I felt like I needed to say something. Cautiously, I approached his desk and said gently, “I see you now, Daniel.” I knew it wouldn’t make sense to him, not in the way I intended. “Of course you can see me, you’re looking right at me!” he exclaimed. Smiling, I thought, “And I really like the view.”
Samantha MacBride is a primary school music teacher who lives in Sydney with her husband, teenage sons, and Yoshi, the dog, whom she frequently refers to as Fluff Monster. At the age of seven, Samantha was so disgusted by her friend’s mashed banana and gravy sandwiches that she wrote a 12-page horror story about mashed banana mummies. These days, it’s Samantha’s love of teaching that provides the stimulus for her writing. Samantha enjoys teaching children with autism and has a desire to raise awareness amongst her students of the challenges faced by children with autism, and to encourage them to celebrate the unique perspective a child with autism brings to the classroom.
This article was featured in Issue 85 – Top Strategies for Supporting your Family