Caleb was in my second-period class. He sat in the corner of the room and never said a word. He was autistic.
Mainstreaming. That's the name for it. It used to be that students with special needs would have their own classes. But then the decision was made to incorporate these students into regular classrooms to remove their isolation and stigmatization.
For teachers, mainstreaming has been incredibly challenging. Not only did they now have to balance the needs of the high achieving students and the disruptive ones, but they also had to find the time to support those with special learning needs. A Herculean task.
But as long as Caleb sat quietly in the corner, this challenge could be managed, if only by often ignoring him.
As with the first period, we ran a pattern of interleaved coding and project days. As we shared the progress each of the students were making on their coding lessons, the teacher noticed that Caleb was learning faster than the other students.
She asked me about the speed of Caleb’s advancement. I told her I wasn’t surprised. Coding, for some students on the autism spectrum, comes quite naturally. In fact, there is an organization in Texas called the nonPareil Institute established to teach coding specifically for these young adults.
Well, it surprised her. So she mentioned it to Caleb's counselor. The counselor then asked if she could take me aside and talk with me.
Caleb's counselor asked me if there might be classes at a community college that he could take to learn programming. Was there hope for him?
I told her that she was thinking about Caleb in the wrong way. She was looking at him as a social liability to be managed. I challenged her to, instead, think of him as a community asset. One that had special gifts to give.
She was taken aback. She had never thought about Caleb that way. "Well," I replied, "you should."
A couple of days later, while I was doing my rounds during their coding day, I stopped by Matthew's computer. He was about to punch out the monitor. He was frustrated. He wanted out.
Matthew was a great athlete and socially well-liked. But he also had trouble focusing on school work. Coding, with its demand for logical thinking, was difficult for him. I knew that I couldn’t help him – all I could do was reassure him. But then I thought about asking Caleb to come over and help him.
I held my breath because I knew that Matthew had, in the past, led others in making fun of Caleb. What would he think about being helped by Caleb?
Softly, he responded, in a slightly defeated tone, “Sure.” I then went over and asked Caleb to go over and help Matthew. Caleb quietly got up and walked over, pulled up a chair next to Matthew, and started to explain to Matthew how to solve his coding challenge.
As this conversation was going on, the teacher suddenly pulled me aside. “What’s going on over there?” she asked. “Caleb is helping out Matthew. Why?” I replied. “But Caleb can’t communicate with other people,” she explained. “Well, it looks like Caleb is doing a good job communicating now,” I responded.
She was shocked, but I wasn’t. In fact, quickly Caleb became my wingman. Anytime I had a student who needed help, I would send Caleb over. Soon, he was spending most of the period bouncing from student to student.
After a few days of this, Caleb came up to me. “Mr. Morrison,” he started in his slow, methodical diction, “if I am spending all of my time helping the other students, when am I going to have time to do my own course work?” I told him that this was a great question and that I wasn’t sure. I then asked him if he had a computer at home. He told me that he did. “Well,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes, “it looks like you are going to have to do your coursework at home because I need you here to help me.”
Caleb finished the entire course that next weekend.
I attended the graduation of the students the following year. Caleb's mother came up to me, with tears in her eyes. Caleb was heading off to college to study computer science.
Parents of autistic kids carry a huge burden of worry that other parents will never know. Theirs is a worry about how their kids will be able to function in society once they can no longer take care of them. This fear is real. For Caleb's mother, there was now a promise that all might be well for her son. That there might be the potential for an independent, self-sufficient future.
For me, I just knew that Caleb had found his calling.
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