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Teachers of Reddit, what is a teacher-parent meeting that will haunt you for life?(r/AskReddit)
I had the parents of a severely autistic student ask about his progress in the normal way. Where was he improving? Where did he need more help at home? Where did I see him by the end of the course? Everything was really relevant to my preparations… Then they started talking about their long term expectations. They mentioned med school and how they wanted him to be a doctor and support the family.
Unachievable goals are surprisingly common in parents of special needs kids, but they’re usually more focused on an impossible level of independence. They usually come to terms with it by the time their kids are in their late teens. Our child will always need somebody there.
This kid was in his twenties, and lacked the ability to communicate his most basic needs due to only having the barest of vocabulary. We’re taking about somebody who knows “yes”, “no”, “mom”, “dad”, “bathroom”, and the names of his favorite toys. His high school diploma was the ultimate token diploma. Any college advisor would look at the curriculum and recognize he didn’t even have the equivalent of a kindergarten education when working independently.
His parents were in the worst kind of denial. I believe it was cultural. They were both physicians from India with multiple degrees. The father spoke seven languages fluently. Yet even these brilliant parents were blinded by their cultural expectation that their son would support them. They knew autism wasn’t a phase, but they refused to accept it as anything else.
Their son will be lucky (and I mean very lucky) if he can even manage to get a job in a sheltered workshop. It would take thousands of hours of training just to get him to complete a two step assembly task independently one time. Getting him to do it throughout a four hour shift without constant assistance could take decades.
I guess the saddest part about it was how severe their son’s autism was. He had no discernable personality outside of selfishness and wanting to play with small toys alone. His games weren’t really games, but fascinations with simple objects he could manipulate with limited motor skills. I like using autism spectrum disorders in a passive sense on students. “Susan is living with downs”, rather than “Susan is a downs kid.” It’s something the industry is pushing, the idea that there’s a human being underneath the condition, and they’re more than the parts of their diagnosis. It’s empowering, and it reminds you to always look deeper for the person struggling underneath the disability.
With this kid though? Autism had stripped him of his humanity. I only saw him laugh once, and I have no idea what caused it, whether he actually found something funny or he was having an episode. His parents loved him desperately, and I attached their praises of his resilience and determination to just how hard they must have worked to get him to get up and exist everyday. It was heartbreaking. They wanted so completely to see their son win a battle he couldn’t hope to fight that they left reality behind to envision it as a realistic potential. He’ll be a doctor. He’ll be himself. He’ll win this.
But he won’t, and one day his parents will face that reality, and it will crush them. I saw all this in their future as they went on, describing medical studies. “He’s so detail oriented, we think he would be best as a surgeon.” I sat there, maintaining my composure by sheer bafflement more than resolve, and I was sad.
I’ve tracked his progress with them over the years, and he’s now in a work placement program, which is not going well. The mother is slowly coming to reality, but the father still believes in the impossible. I get Christmas cards from them, and we do coffee once a month. They force gifts on me and are interested in my work and the types of breakthroughs I’ve had with other students. It’s a parent teacher meeting that will probably never end. Their son comes, and sometimes he seems to recognize me. He asks for the “broom hen”, which is what he always referred to his favorite “blue marker” as. His parents’ eyes will light up when he does this.
He’s no surgeon and he was a horrible student, but years later I think I can see why the simplest successes, like remembering who gave him his “broom hen”, can make a parent lose all perspective. The smallest accomplishment makes everything seem possible, if only for an instant. He’s living with autism, and not the other way around. But fuck all if I’m not still sad when I see the incredible smallness of his victories and how wonderous they still feel when you see the boy under the diagnosis.
Edit: Thanks for the kind messages, the double gold, and all the good feels. I’d like to try and pass on some more good feels for anybody interested in special needs who was moved by my story. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a lovely book written in the first person from the perspective of an individual on the autism spectrum. It’s definitely worth reading if you like touching stories.