Last night was open house at my kid’s school. Open house is the evening where parents go to school and learn the exciting news that their kid’s classroom has awesome beanbag chairs that constitute the “Reading is Fun!” pavilion next to the coat rack. I jest of course; open house is important. It’s where you learn your child’s schedule, see their classroom and meet the teachers that will be the stewards of their education for the next ten months. It’s always good to have a nice rapport with your children’s teachers, but this goes double–no triple, for me and my wife. As I mentioned in Episode 57 of The Real Life Survival Guide, my wife and I are the proud parents of two boys; Shane, who is on the autism spectrum and Patrick, who is just kind of a pain in the neck. Both boys present challenges to their teachers. Having been a bartender and a teacher, I have learned that a little gratuity can go a long way. Knowing this, my wife and I are not above offering bribes; flowers, bottles of wine, poetry, baskets of puppies…stock options, whatever. As long as it will get their teachers to see past the challenges that my son’s present and allow them to see the good, smart, and funny boys that lie beneath the surface so that the extra work of educating my boys doesn’t turn into some wearisome, awful, burden.
Now as challenging as it can be for my wife and I to raise a child on the spectrum, we always try to keep in mind the extra time and effort it takes for teachers and staff to successfully integrate a special needs child into the classroom. Knowing all the hard work Shane’s teachers do in order for him to learn, my wife and I have followed the time tested maxim, that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”. We try our best to work cooperatively with the school administration, the teachers and the special education team. We have found that being a friendly, helpful and engaged advocate for our son has helped him gain a legion of advocates within the school. It also hasn’t hurt that Shane is a sweet, funny kid. It turns out that his own personality is his best advocate. We have heard from his psychologist and his special education teachers how rare it is for a child on the autism spectrum to be as funny as Shane is.
This humor can be a double edged sword. As much praise as Shane has received from teachers and classmates for being funny, I have also received phone calls from the Principal and notes home from his teachers explaining how Shane said something inappropriate in the classroom. (I also get calls from the nurse every now and then saying he ate part of his shoe or a few erasers but that’s not important right now.) Whenever we receive a call or note about him saying bad words, my wife always turns to me with a scowl and says, “It’s all your fault.” And she’s right. I confess. I have let him watch a few things that some people might find objectionable or questionable and a few of these movies and shows might have taught him a few exotic words or phrases. But, I have a defense.
When Shane was three years old, before he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) or as I call it, “Lot’s O’ words disorder”, he would spend a lot of time in his head, either silently living in his own thoughts or nervously pacing around, reciting the lines from Sesame Street or Thomas the Tank Engine over and over, as if on a loop. It was upsetting to say the least. One of the biggest frustrations was his inconsistency. At some moments I would swear there was nothing wrong with him and then just as quickly as he had entered my world and started to interact, he would withdraw and return to the pacing and echolalia. I have often described these early years as the spaceship years. In the spaceship, there was family and friends and life and love and outside the spaceship there was nothing but dark, solitary, emptiness. The struggle was to keep him from floating out the hatch and out into deep space. Sometimes, it felt like the lure of the dark void was too strong and that he would choose to float away, and we would lose him forever, but my wife and I pulled and yanked and somehow kept that little kid on our spaceship. The main thing I found during this time that kept him tethered to the real world– was humor. Whether he was in the middle of a meltdown or just playing with his toys I noticed that humor seemed to be the best tool to either get him to calm down or to bring him outside his own head. This wasn’t like Rain Man flatly reciting; “Who’s On First” as if it were a math problem, Shane really seemed to understand what made Abbott and Costello funny. His overall comprehension of language was weak but he somehow understood comedy.
At the same time, I tried to get Shane interested in sports but he showed little interest. It seemed we weren’t ever going to bond over the Yankees or Jets or my hatred for Boston but we could bond over silliness. This led me to introduce him to the world of Bugs Bunny, The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges, Monty Python, The Simpsons, Jackass, The Ricky Gervais Show, South Park, Family Guy, Young Frankenstein, Caddy Shack, and a host of other things. Was some of it a tad inappropriate? Yes. Did it help him? I say yes. As time passed Shane’s language and social skills improved, he developed a great sense of humor and with the help of his teachers and psychologists he really began to come out of his shell.
Now he is eleven. And being a kid on the spectrum is not easy. There are always a few kids looking to pick on a child that is different but his sense of humor has won him allies. His classmates genuinely like him are very protective of him. But a few problems persist. He still has echolalia which means he can and does recite huge sections of dialogue from shows and movies. Want to hear King Arthur fight the black knight in Monty Python and Holy Grail? He’ll recite the whole thing with the proper accents. Want to hear Marge Simpson, Mr. Burns or Ralph Wiggum? He’s got their voices down. Ever Watch HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show? Well Shane has and that’s where we get into a little bit of trouble. Because Shane remembers all the dialogue from shows, he sometimes goes into school and repeats them, line after cheeky line. And that’s my fault. I let him watch stuff that he shouldn’t and he doesn’t always understand why some of the words shouldn’t be repeated. Maybe I’m a bad Father, but if a call from the principal or a note sent home from a teacher is the price I have to pay to have my son sitting next to me inside the spaceship, fully engaged, laughing his awesome laugh, then I’d gladly pay it over and over and over again. But to keep everyone happy I might just throw in some Roses for the teacher and a box of Cigars for the Principal. It couldn’t hurt.
Gerry McGuire took his love of history, trivia, comedy, literature, music and film and turned himself into a pop culture quoting, chat machine. He is like Cliff Claven from Cheers if Cliff Claven was stunningly handsome, awesomely funny and unbelievably humble. He fancies himself what the French would describe as a raconteur or what Americans call, a loud mouth. Gerry writes for Milford Living Magazine, sings in the Celtic rock band The Butcher Boys and is a stay at home dad.