An open letter to my autistic son’s teacher

Hannah Grieco

Mothers cushion their children from hard things, but teachers create classroom and school communities. They decide who gets included and who gets bullied.

By Hannah Grieco

When we met, I was the angry, hovering mom you dreaded interacting with. Emails, phone calls, in-person meetings ― your lips tightened before forcing a smile. You knew moms like me and children like mine. When my son ran from the classroom, you’d roll your eyes. When he’d pace in the back of the room, you’d shush his muttering.

The transition to your class was hard, at times painfully so, as my son’s autistic needs proved overwhelming to you at the beginning. Your firmly entrenched ideas and labels were a bright target I aimed for, and I was not patient through our struggles to listen to each other.

In previous schools, teachers mistook my son’s disability for purposeful behavior, overestimating his ability to adapt and underestimating his intellect and heart. You seemed cut from the same cloth.

I taught elementary school before I became a mother, and I knew that teachers, exhausted and undersupported, often did not have the training or bandwidth to learn about and accommodate unusual learners in their classrooms. Teachers can become rooted in their understanding of learning, and why wouldn’t they? Standardized tests demand results in percentage form. Outliers, particularly those who test well, only come into focus when they detract from instruction time.

Behaviors like my son’s detract from instruction time.

But you are not other teachers. You stood your ground admirably, maddeningly ― and then something happened as fall transitioned to winter.

Was there a crack in your armor, one my son’s smiles wormed its way through? Were you exhausted one morning from your own personal motherhood battles and my son brought you an origami lily, placing it on your desk in a twitchy peace offering? Did we both tear up at the parent-teacher conference and connect, briefly, about just how hard this all was?

I don’t know exactly when the transition began, but all of a sudden my son wanted to go to school. He wrote poems about you and his classmates at the dinner table. He told me a funny story at bedtime about his accidental shouted expletive when he got a math problem wrong, and how you cracked up, laughing until you cried. Then assured him he wasn’t in trouble. Then used it as a learning experience for the class.

“I think she gets me now,” he said.

At our January team meeting, you hugged me hello. We briefly spoke about my son’s progress, his new friendships, and the way the counselor was using flexible thinking models for the whole class, rather than just one student. You made jokes about your husband needing similar support.

Then we moved into discussing autism in classrooms, and how teachers can understand, accommodate and reframe their approaches to autistic learners. The whole team smiled and listened. Teachers and principals didn’t act this way. Not for kids like mine or mothers like me. What changed?

You changed. You stepped away from your fixed understanding and saw my son. He became a person to you, rather than a diagnosis or a problem to solve. You watched him struggle and learn and grow, and you followed his lead.

You stretched, modeling that yes ― adults can also adjust and push through uncomfortable, hard situations. You transformed my son’s ideas about both school and his role as student. Even his role as a person, in general, interacting with others and understanding his place in this world. Mothers cushion their children from hard things, but teachers create classroom and school communities. They decide who gets included and who gets bullied.

You modeled inclusion for other teachers in his school, impacting their approaches to teaching autistic students. You created a classroom where nondisabled students learned with, and learned from, atypical learners. Where they learned to see my son as a person who had gifts to offer and differences to explore.

This week, my son won the school’s poetry slam. He now takes the bus to school, walking with other children calmly through the front doors and high-fiving friends in the hall. Last night, we talked about middle school next year, and having a locker partner, and maybe trying band.

My son has the teacher I always dreamed he would have. You.


Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate and writer in Arlington, VA. She works with families to support their children in and out of school, focusing on helping parents become advocates themselves to ensure their children have every opportunity for success. Her written work can be read in Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” Huffington Post, Parenting Pod, Motherly, Lunch Ticket, Arlington Magazine, and many other publications.

This letter was originally published here.

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