October 5, 2009

Unlike last week, it was a very hectic day in David’s classroom. One male student had an episode brought on by nothing apparent to the rest of us. In short, we were seated in a semi-circle as David lectured on the importance of understanding citizenship and being an engaged and responsible part of the community as the boy simply stood up, started yelling, and knocked over everything in his vicinity, including a table, chairs, and nearly toppling the fridge. Mark and David tried to restrain him but the two grown men could neither calm him nor stop him. Their approach led to greater protest. They tried to drag him outside, but by grabbing their feet and forcing his body weight to the ground, the boy effectively made the trio immobile. After letting him briefly rest on the ground, two female TA’s approached him gently and took him to the nurse. He was much more complacent with the women; imitation is often a pattern in autism, and I wondered if, even in his heightened emotional state, imitation led the boy to calm.

There are so many things to reflect on in relation to this episode. The two main things I want to write on are the reactions of the pupils and the adults. As the episode began, David tried to ignore it by simply proceeding with the lesson. As it became evident that the tantrum was turning destructive, David and Mark cleared the area of students, and approached, stopping at a close but unthreatening distance. “You’re alright! Let’s finish this lesson,” was their most forceful command – and even this was expressed cheerfully. Every adult proceeded as if this was an expected part of the day; as chairs and art supplies and food went flying, not one of them panicked, not one of them yelled, not one of them scolded. Mark and David restrained the student only when they perceived him to be a danger to the rest of the class.

The students in the class handled the outburst equally impressively. I was afraid that an episode of one would set off a chain reaction, but quite the opposite occurred. Some students turned their backs, obviously upset, but empathetically concerned. Heads dipped into hands as if silent prayers were being muttered. Maleika was sitting on my right and grabbed my hand seconds after the pupil went off, before I realized what was happening. I first perceived this action as fear, but I think she was actually protecting me. She also grabbed the hand of Harry on her right and did not slouch in fright herself, but pulled us close into her while assessing the situation with a mother-like grip. Thematically, the congruence of the day’s lesson and ensuing events struck me. Malieka, who does not speak except to say “Hello!” displayed an intuition far beyond my own and used this sense not to run from the room, but to protect those closest to her.

As everything settled, the class eased right back into the lesson. The student was warmly welcomed into the semi-circle with a female TA on either side of him. Before too long, he was jovially engaged, having put the hour’s events out of his mind. No one mentioned the outburst or asked questions. In a mainstream class of sixteen-year-olds, any type of behavioral breach would incite gossip, nicknames, and distrust; at Riverside, the empathetic acceptance of the boy’s fellow pupils was profoundly genuine and deeply moving. I had never seen this student upset like this, and the nature of the tantrum remains a mystery. I would give anything to live inside his head for a day or for just that spell to try to understand the reactions that – to an outsider – are set off by nothing at all. Understanding may lead to treatment or coping techniques, but how much can one teenager be scrutinized for explanations no one may have? I suppose, at certain times, that I should follow the example of my students and not wish for such personal information or explanation, accepting what I cannot understand while cultivating a genuine empathy that serves as the conduit of progress.