On the first of September, my teaching partner and friend, Lori, and I were rolling out our version of Genius Hour to our team of approximately 60 sixth graders. Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school. The project reminds me of Kevin Spacey’s movie Pay It Forward.
All 60 sixth graders were seated in my science lab. Some were in chairs at the lab tables while others were seated around the perimeter of the room sitting on the lab stations’ counter tops. My daughter, Hannah, was one of those students—as she has progressed on the autism spectrum over the years, she’s been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, having been re-diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome before it was removed from DSM-5.
Lori and I were told that this specific group of students had really embraced last year’s projects and had some exceptional results. Apparently one’s passion for books led him to collecting over 5,000 books for Hendricks Regional Health’s Pediatric Unit. Another’s passion for horses led her to extensive training and a volunteer position with equine therapy. Lori and I had not asked specifics from last year’s teachers, so we questioned the students. Their enthusiasm to share and their energetic responses about their projects astounded us. Hands were flying up in the air, and students were adding to one another’s accomplishments with their own projects.
Then, it happened. The last student we called on is one of the most vocal of our gifted/high ability team of students. He is tall and thin, has an athletic build, and wears glasses. He is the kid in the class that when he talks, everyone listens. They may not agree, but they listen. I had pulled him out into the hallway the week before to compliment him, because he has an incredible way of saying things in the classroom that need to be said—things that I, as a teacher, probably shouldn’t be saying. I appreciate his filtered comments and let him know his voice makes a difference.
During his few moments during Genius Hour, he began by saying that his project included a study on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). His research into OCD led him to a list of neurological disorders that could be associated with OCD (comorbidities). On that list he found autism.
With impeccable elocution, he began, “I moved here in fourth grade. Being in the high-ability cohort, everyone else had interacted with Hannah for years. I had not. It is no secret that the two of us did not get along at all. The other kids shared with me that she had autism, but what is that? And, does she really have it, is it just gossip, or maybe even an excuse to act the way she does? I went home and complained to my parents about our arguments, and I’m sure she did the same.”
He continued, “You see, Hannah sees everything one way—it’s black or white. There is no gray, or anything in-between. She is strong in her convictions and will defend them with earnest intensity. It’s hard for her to understand that others can have a different point of view or opinion, and that it’s okay to disagree. Her headstrong personality only sees one way to get things done—her way. She is brutally honest to others, and it often seems as if there no regard to their feelings. Other kids would let this go, but I simply could not. ”
Then came awareness, which he articulated with understanding beyond his years. “I then read the symptoms in the book associated with autism. Hannah had so many of the listed symptoms. Hannah has challenges that I can’t even comprehend. I then became bothered and troubled. I felt sorry for her. I guess the words neurological and disorder hit me hard. Hannah has this malady and can’t help it. It’s how her brain is wired.”
We were hanging on his every word as I recognized he had moved into a powerful phase: acceptance. “Hannah and I don’t argue anymore, and I have her back—like everyone else. I accept that she thinks and feels differently, but I also know it’s important for her to fit in. I have learned how to talk to her, and I am learning that what I once thought as opinionated and bossy was her version of determined and driven. I would go so far as to call her my friend. That’s what came out of my Genius Hour.”
He finished, and I sat there, stunned. What could I possibly say that could even attempt to rise to that magnitude? And yet he had in that single moment epitomized my core belief—my mantra.
As both Hannah’s teacher and parent, I have to be careful not to focus on Hannah in the classroom, but I did look at her. I didn’t have to worry about what to say. Hannah spoke up.
She said the student’s name and then, “No one has said anything that sweet before about my autism. What you just said really meant a lot to me.”
At that point, my teaching partner, Lori, took the boy by the hand to share and celebrate his epiphany with our administrators. I called his mother the following day to extend my appreciation.
Rolling out Genius Hour was a success, just like their projects had been the prior year. I hope that this year’s projects lead to such fulfillment. With guidance, young kids can truly accomplish and learn great things—they can build, invent, and in the case of this young man, grasp some of the most powerful lessons of life: awareness and acceptance of others who are different. He—and I hope all of the kids in the room that day who listened intently to his short speech—can carry that into adulthood, into a world that needs people with insight and compassion toward others.
I welcome any questions and/or comments—just drop them in the comments below.
Now, do what you can to spread autism awareness and acceptance!