This guest post is by Jill Briesch, a tax accountant from Dallas, TX who has two sons with autism. She and her family are also the DFW Node ambassador family for the Autism BrainNet Initiative. The post is adapted from Jill's lecture to doctoral students in Dallas.
The new school year will begin in just a few weeks; we can hardly believe it and we’re sure we are not alone in this sentiment! Our son has been counting down to the start of school all summer, methodically ticking off the days and asking question after question about kindergarten, about the other children who will be his classmates, and especially about you. He is trying as best as he can at 5 years old to paint a portrait in his mind of what this new world will be like for him and you are at the center of it. This letter is our attempt to paint a portrait of him, his story, and his family for you.
His name is Alexander. The most famous person in history to bear this name, Alexander the Great, overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges to accomplish his goals, pushing the boundaries of what was believed to be possible. So has it gone for the little boy who will walk through the door of your classroom next month.
He has crystal clear blue eyes, a contagious smile, an endless amount of enthusiastic energy, and he loves Star Wars more than anyone I’ve ever met. He also has Autism and was recently diagnosed with ADHD.
Alexander is capable of a great deal, but he has to work harder and for longer than most for just about everything. Increasingly, he is aware of it. And increasingly, he is frustrated and greatly discouraged by it.
He isn’t going to tell you or his other teachers how simple things can be difficult for him. But you will see it if you watch him try to blend in with the other children at centers or during cooperative sports. Please offer him extra support and encouragement whenever possible during these times even when he seems to be doing well. He needs it more than is apparent on the surface, for none of this comes naturally for him however much he wishes it did.
He won’t tell anyone at school how upset he gets with himself when he is unable to follow protocols he knows inside and out in the heat of the moment. Please, when you can, take the extra time to explain to him that he is not defined by his worst moments but that his words and actions do impact others. He can easily identify how others feel and he genuinely cares, but it is very hard for him to understand how he himself is a factor in these things.
He won’t tell you that he wonders why he has been able to spell his name since age two but still struggles to write it when every single child around him has been able to do it for more than a year. Please, as you are able, reinforce to him that every person on the planet has things they have to work very hard for and that his worth has nothing to do with how he stacks up against anyone else in any arena.
But our biggest request is this. At some point this school year, he will almost certainly look you straight in the eye and say something to the effect of “It’s too hard”. “I’m bad at things like this”. “I don’t want to try any more”. “I can’t do it”. And of the many obstacles our little boy faces, this is the one that strikes the most fear in our hearts… him giving up on himself.
Because we fervently believe that with your help and ours, he can do everything he will be asked to do this school year. We know he can. We know because we’ve been living it for years. He’s been overcoming for years. Our greatest hope is that Alexander will learn to believe it too. And so our biggest request of you and everyone who will be working with him this school year is that you will do everything in your power to help him believe it.
All of this is not to say that there are not going to be some very bumpy days this school year. There will likely be times that you try everything you can think of and he still isn’t where he needs to be. Please come to us in those times; together, we will chart the way forward. We are truly your biggest and most devoted supporters in your work with our son and will do everything and anything we can possibly do to reinforce your efforts with him.
Thank you for your time in reading this letter. Thank you for all that you will teach our son this year. Most of all, thank you in advance for believing in him and joining in the effort to help him fulfill his great potential.
Chris and Jill Briesch
P.S. He’ll be the kid with the Star Wars theme backpack, lunchbox… well, Star Wars theme everything :)