Katie adores her teacher, Mr. F. I adore him too. How can any parent resist a teacher with incredible enthusiasm for his job? After the first day of school, Mr. F said to me, “Wow, Katie is really smart. It’s going to be so much FUN teaching her!”
No one has ever said that about my autistic child. Not even close.
Mr. F is young and idealistic and almost cried at the first post-transition meeting when he reported that Katie had intentionally kicked him in the shin. He worried that she didn’t like him. I knew that wasn’t the issue and told him so. I said I suspected she was trying to get his attention. Katie was no longer the only girl in the classroom and was one of the least verbal. She didn’t know how to request his attention in words, so she was getting it through nonverbal communication.
“It’s pretty effective,” he said, rubbing his leg.
After that, we worked on appropriate ways to request attention and the kicking dropped off. Mr. F was thrilled.
One night in the bath tub, Katie said, as she often does, “I want a daddy please.”
As a single parent, I never know whether to laugh or cry when I hear this. As always, I promised her that I was working on it because I wanted her to have a daddy too. Usually that assurance ended the conversation. But on this night, Katie continued to play with her model horse and then said, “I want Mr. F to be the daddy.”
I laughed. “Oh sweetie, Mr. F is way too young for Mommy. He can’t be the daddy. But he CAN be your teacher.”
She smiled. “I like Mr. F.”
For the first time my daughter truly enjoyed going to school. I liked Mr. F too.
Shortly before winter break, I drove to Katie’s school to pick her up. Mr. F waited with Tammy (an aide) and Katie. As he talked to me about Katie’s day, Katie leaned into his hip and grabbed his belt with one hand. The other hand grabbed his upper thigh. He casually moved it to a more appropriate location. It drifted back down, and he moved it again. “What is she doing?” I asked.
“I think she’s trying to hug me,” he said.
Until then Katie had always backed sideways into my arms and tolerated me hugging her. This is a classic “autism hug.” She only allowed a few people to hug her in this way: me, my mom, a favorite sitter, her brother Danny, and interestingly, the school secretary who had no idea how rare this honor was. Katie had never given anyone a hug.
Katie’s hand drifted down again, and the adults laughed awkwardly. “Katie,” I said. “Hug Mr. F like this.” I shifted her to a straight-on position, and she squeezed his waist tight with both arms.
“Katie hugs,” she said. “Hug Mr. F.”
Tammy got a hug next. Eventually I got one too. She would not, however, hug Tammy’s six-year-old son, much to his relief. But this past week she has hugged a few random (and surprised) strangers. Afterwards she says, “I can hug.”
And I respond, “Yes, you can.”
This December Katie successfully navigated her first encounter with Santa AND started to hug. Katie’s current placement might not be working well from a behavioral standpoint. But from a social skills perspective, I think it’s working out just fine.
Until next time,