There was some free time at the end of class one afternoon. When the students in the Autism Unit (AU) at Summit Academy in Youngstown, OH, have behaved well they are sometimes afforded a few minutes of down time before changing classes. Mike* had been arm wrestling everyone he could find and had run out of competitors.
“Mr. Knick,” he asked, “do you wanna arm wrestle me?”
I don’t like to turn the kids down if they want me to participate in what they are doing. So I obliged.
After about a minute of holding steady, I decided to tease him a little. He had beaten everyone in class and was talkin’ a little trash, all in good fun. I was sure he must have been tired having arm wrestled so much. So I suggesting to our onlookers that someone ask me what time it was. When one of them did, I abruptly pinned Mike’s hand to the table, looked at the wrist of my arm-wrestling hand (that didn’t actually have a watch on it), and declared, “It’s about 3 o’clock.”
Everyone, including Mike, laughed.
Drew, another new friend of mine in the class, remarked how unexpected that was. I agreed, “Yeah, I’ll bet you never would have guessed that I work out at the gym a couple of times a week by looking at me, would you?’
“No,” he replied candidly, “not in a million years.”
Ha! The cool thing is that he didn’t mean it as an insult. It’s what he thought, so he said it. I find that refreshing in so many ways, even despite the occasional slam. I’ve discovered that there can be tidbits of wisdom derived from their perspectives that tend to escape the rest of us. And it helped me to think from another perspective that, I’m ashamed to say, I often don’t consider.
So often it seems like God doesn’t know what he’s doing. While waiting for God and working toward launching our new church I’m working part time as Pastor of Outreach at Evangel Baptist – where I’ll still be after the new church launches – and working as a substitute at Summit. My pal Ryan Hart works there and put in a good word for me. I’ve been assigned mostly to the AU program because a teacher there has been on maternity leave. After being unsure about God’s purpose in my current circumstances, it has occurred to me many times since that God is the best one for his job.
There are always two teachers in the classroom. Michelle Walsh is the teacher that I’ve been working with, and it’s been a blast. We often chat about how honest the kids are, and what a joy it is to work with them. And we laugh . . . a lot.
I knew very little about Autism before I started working there. Watch the movie about Temple Grandin if you want to know more. In the movie, her mother advises, “Remember, you are different, not less.” They relate to world differently than most of us and, as the movie shows, what they say can be grossly misclassified as ignorance.
During my first week the kids had to fill out a mock job application. Josh had stopped at the blank where he was supposed to fill in his race. I explained that he is African-American. He looked puzzled and noted that he wasn’t from Africa, so I continued, “That’s another way to say black. You can write down either one. I am Anglo-American, or white.”
He looked a friend of the same race sitting across the table, “Are you African-American too?”
“I guess so,” Braylon replied.
Then Josh uttered one of those things that makes me believe he is actually thinking on a higher level than most of us. He pouted, “I wish we didn’t have to be African or Anglo-American. I wish I could just be American.”
What could I say? I smiled at him and replied, “Well put, Josh. I’m with you on that one.”
People with Autism aren’t less, just different . . . and often times different is better.
* These aren’t the real names of the students. I had a pretty cool picture I couldn’t use either.