by Natalie Jaro
One of my favorite lines from a movie is when Gregory Peck, who plays Atticus Finch, in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, tells his temperamental and compulsive daughter, Scout Finch, that she’ll get along a lot better with ‘folks’ if she only tries to step inside their shoes and walk around in them. A nugget of truth that we as educators and parents start to teach our children from early on. It isn’t because children are ‘bad’ or ‘selfish’ but it is part of their natural development to be self-centered—for young children this is merely a scientific fact. Despite his later criticism, a pioneer in childhood development, Jean Piaget, found children up until the age of seven, unable to deductively reason from anything other than an egocentric position in the so-called ‘concrete-operational stage’. For example, if a child sees a bug on the floor, he/she assumes everyone else in the room can see it too even if they aren’t looking down or are half as close to the floor as they are. Studies do show that even young children show empathy early on, however, I am speaking merely on a developmental level. It is this particular oddity that makes autism unique, the cornerstone of what my autistic son struggles with—to be able to put himself in another’s shoes, per say. Ironically, after watching, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for the first time with my son well near to being born, full and round in my stomach, I made the decision after the movie ended, to name him Atticus.
Maybe my son, in the end, will be my reminder to see the world again through eyes I once knew, but have forgotten, and to discover the wonder of it again. Coming to terms with my son’s autism diagnosis has been a unique journey, one filled with the sweetest of smiles but also with the bitterest of tears and frustrations. I have had to work through the initial concern that something was wrong to heading out in search of what was wrong (no easy task in this case), to learning and accepting his problem and then discovering how to adjust to it. The unsurpassed love I have for my son has compelled me forward to continually seek help and hope for the both of us. The stories of other parents and people involved in the lives of children with autism are always helpful, each word sheds a touch more light onto a road we do not walk alone. The stories often begin the same, but are never quite our own, stories that beg to be told. This is my story, but mostly, it’s about Atticus.
Autism, it is a word that has mystified the modern-day world, a condition I don’t remember twelve years ago when I first began a career as a Montessori educator in early childhood. The focus of my training was on the normal stages of development and everyday I moved more ahead in both theory and in practice in my understanding of young children. I worked full-time in a school in Lake Forest, California. I trained on weekends, evenings, and over a summer until I was certified and began teaching for many years later. Within those years I watched many children come and go. I observed them, I taught them and they taught me most of what I know about them. During every school year there were always a few children I’d notice in the class who had differences. For example, the repetition of certain behaviors, like body movements, tics or habits, difficulty relating to peers or socializing, developmental delays, confusion, agitation or aggression.
It broke my heart, I wasn’t trained to help these children, I did not know how to help. I’d read and try to learn, but I was discouraged from implying to parents that something was out-of-sync with their child. It was only under more extreme cases that we’d then meet with the parents with more than one teacher and representatives from administration. What was even harder was when we’d have parents who’d do nothing once they were told to investigate the concerns we saw—without their help what was their future to bring?