Sarah had a strange way about her. She would focus so completely on whatever she was reading that she seemed oblivious to the world around her. However, when the volume in the room reached a certain level, she would burst out with a screaming plea at her classmates to be quiet. “I can’t take anymore of this noise,” she’d yell. At other times, she made loud exclamations to no one in particular. “My mom makes great cinnamon rolls,” she announced one day while unpacking her materials.
Classmates would raise their eyebrows, equally confused and surprised. This girl with the anime books had a hard time writing the smallest paragraphs, and yet could speak aloud more eloquently than most of her peers. How was it she could easily synthesize the main concepts of lessons she didn’t seem to be paying attention to? Why didn’t she talk directly to anyone? One day she gave her own explanation.
Someone asked her a question out of my earshot. All of a sudden I hear Sarah’s unmistakably emphatic voice say, “I have Asperger’s.”
The other children twittered at the funny-sounding name. Sarah wasn’t fazed.
“What’s that?” somebody asked.
“It means I relate to adults better than to my peers,” she said, explaining one common characteristic of children with the syndrome.
The other children were quiet and respectful as they processed the new information. They had noticed that she didn’t interact with other students much. Now they understood that there was a reason for that. I was grateful to her for sharing.
Sharing is the key. People can’t hope to understand mental health issues if they have never learned about them. Sarah’s willingness to share her perspective helped my students build empathy, and the result was a more tolerant culture in our classroom.
What if it was as easy to talk about Asperger’s syndrome as it is to discuss diabetes? It would help break down the stigma, making school a more comfortable place for students on the autism spectrum, and for their classmates trying to understand them. The way to make it easier to talk about, like most things, is just to do it. Bring it up. Don’t shy away from conversations. We can incorporate information on mental health into an English unit, or initiate the discussion with a journaling exercise.
It is great when students feel comfortable sharing their specific circumstances regarding mental health; the whole class benefits, certainly. But we have to take our share of the responsibility, and teach mental health awareness throughout the year. We can (and should!) discuss the spectrum of autism, depression, and any conditions that we know to be affecting students in our communities. No specific names need be mentioned. Kids will gain awareness and be more likely to react in a peaceful way when they encounter a classmate living with a mental health issue.
Sarah was brave enough to share her story with my class, but not all students are. We must do our part.