When I enter the room, I find it strange that there are only a few tables. I notice that some of the tables’ corners are covered with foam rubber. From the classroom there is a door leading to an adjoining room. This room is not a storeroom as one would expect but a massive room with a fitted kitchen and an area reminiscent of one’s living room at home. I rush to the instructions on the teacher’s desk. The first page contains no lesson content but instructions on the pupils themselves. I read that I shouldn’t walk too close to one’s table as she tends to bite your bolt when you walk past. Another child is blind, yet another must see the program for the day and be shown where we are going. There are only eight children in this class but I suddenly realize that today I unwittingly volunteered to teach eight autistic children. My education when it comes to autism extends as far as the movie “Rain Man” and I last watched it in high school! I get the feeling that I’m going to be the one on the strongest learning curve today. I was right …
So I met Dante, who walked with a frame and spoke with the greatest effort in short sentences. He is a handsome Indian boy. When he gets frustrated, he throws his pencils on the ground and stares out at the window as if he is devising a plot against society. He has a teaching assistant by his side, a man in his fifties who talks to Dante in a Spanish accent for the joke. With a little imagination, Dante looks quite like a high profile Spanish criminal with a bodyguard.
Then there is Travis. He is 14. As if his autism was not a big enough challenge for him, he is also blind. He tapped our exercise on his braille typewriter. Everything I show to the kids must feel Travis with his hands.
Elizabeth, on the face of it, looks as if there is nothing wrong with her. She is beautiful. Her skin is pale and looks as smooth as porcelain. His hum is almost constant and doesn’t really speak. She has a tendency to chew her hands if she gets nervous as the scars on her hands attest.
Areeba is a girl I almost considered one of the helpers. She has a sense for practical tasks that need to be done. She is a suggestion in the kitchen and she gives answers to sums that astound you. When you talk to her, she gives short, stacato answers as if she’s a robot programmed to pass on only factual information.
Sarah is a girl who has a gift for disappearing into the background. You don’t know about her. She does everything she does purposefully but extremely slowly. It’s almost as if an angel has the slow action button on her remote control somewhere. She leaves me to my little girl when she has to get ready for school in the mornings.
Dylan is the guy who needs to see the schedule. It disgusts him much if we deviate from the schedule and his anxiety about it was contagious to me. He zips long dialogues from well-known movies out of his head. I think he will be able to correct any actor who forgets his words soon.
And then there is Zahra. Zahra’s the least social child in the class. She is non-verbal. Her entire body instinctively turns away from a person approaching her. She likes to hide under her arms and stealthily watch a person. Occasionally, she gives such a sly smile. She is a biter. She bites suddenly and unexpectedly. She also loves to hug other friends and so often disturbs the class’s peace. Still, it is beautiful to see how the others accept her completely and do not hold her behavior against her. I initially intended to avoid her but for some inexplicable reason we clicked. She allowed me closer to her than anyone else. I told myself it was because I was too skinny to bite.
My day is accompanied by a few bumps and bumps. My A-type personality wants to push through the lesson plan but I soon see that it works differently here. When I sat down with everyone on the big sofa for the last period, we watched Lion King. Zhara curls up next to me as she shakes a bottle with a ball in and out of her ear. Elizabeth comes to sit upright on my other side as if she was expecting a boyfriend to come and pick her up for another moment. Travis throws his head back on another sofa and Daryl looks relieved that we’ve now arrived at the last item on the schedule. Elton John’s “Circle of Life” plays over the speakers while Rafiki shows the beautiful lion cub to the world on screen.
I suddenly feel deeply grateful that the circle of life has room for these children as well
A contentment and a peace descend upon me as Zahra’s body falls heavily asleep beside me. Suddenly, I feel deeply grateful that the circle of life has room for these children too and that in this moment, though I can do little for them, I can still be with them. I still don’t know much about autism but today I learned this: These kids aren’t just jobs; they are also a blessing and for anyone who, even if accidentally, Spending time with them is a gift that money cannot buy. “I have to do it more,” I tell myself. Everyone should.
Author: Gawie Snyman