‘I would have found ways to let your gifts shine’: Teacher-turned-autism parent recalls what she wishes she had known

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“Autism is a jolt to the sensory system.

When I was a young first grade teacher, I had a little boy in my class that would not enter the bathroom. He seriously would ‘hold it’ all day long. His mom was a private person and it wasn’t till our second parent teacher conference that she filled me in that ‘J’ had a hard time with the smell of the cleaning products we used. When our 20 minute meeting ended, I went into the tiny 5×9 room and sniffed vigorously trying to pick up on any Clorox or ammonia. I smelled nothing. So in my head I labeled this child ‘weird’ and the mom… ‘crazy.’ I owe them both a huge apology.

Looking back, I now know ‘J’ was autistic. As a third-year teacher whose preparation for autism was probably a paragraph in my child-psych textbook and a viewing of ‘Rainman,’ I had no knowledge of this disorder. I pushed ‘J’ to finger paint and look me in the eye, both of which probably caused him serious discomfort. His mom would pop in and check on him and often there was a compromise between the two of them that meant he could go home early.

Wouldn’t we all like to go back and yell at our younger self at some point?

I could have been a much better teacher to you ‘J.’ I wish we could go back 17 years so I could acknowledge that your intense feelings about the bathroom were very real because your olfactory system was indeed on fire. I would have toured the school with you and mom in search of a less intense restroom or I would have personally cleaned our little bathroom with the products mom used at home. I wouldn’t have worn that obnoxious body splash, that looking back was offensive all around. I would never make you look me in the eyes and have to endure all my facial expressions. Instead I would know that processing all my words was intense enough for you. I would have used your obsession with baseball as a jumping off point in the classroom to allow you to share your expertise with your peers. I would have found ways to let your gifts shine. And to your mom, I wish I could have been more reassuring. I wish I could have been that person that gave her a true break during her day because she would have known that I was looking out for you.

Sensory issues are very real and very different for every individual. My daughter Sadie for example, is the exact opposite of ‘J.’ She craves intensity because she is an under-processer. She needs to jump vigorously and be squeezed just to feel regulated. She eats everything because she is trying to get more feedback. But ‘J’ was definitely an over-processer. He covered his ears and ate bland white food because everything was working overtime in his body.

I will leave you with one more bit of wisdom… you don’t need to be on the autism spectrum to have sensory issues. What is easy for some people can be excruciating for another person. Be Kind. I wish I was kinder to ‘J.’

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Regan MacKay Lister of Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Her 7-year-old daughter, Sadie, has severe autism. Lister has been writing a post a day on her This is Autism Facebook page explaining her family’s life with autism in honor of autism awareness month. Read some of her posts below:

‘People often ask me what is the hardest part of having a child with autism. The irony is, it’s not the child with autism. It’s my other child.’

Her ‘disability is invisible’: Mom painstakingly navigates outings with daughter who has severe autism

‘It’s stressful to throw money at something that has almost invisible results’: Having a child with severe autism affects your marriage

Mom lays out clear cut ways to help maintain a sense of ‘community’ for severely autistic daughter

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