Sunday, January 31, 2010

Equality On the Spectrum, On the Eve of Black History Month

This is not an easy post to write.

It is one that I write with some (ok, a lot) of hesitation, because I know it makes me sound like a horribly inadequate parent and I am feeling like one when it comes to this issue. Because it is hard to admit (at least for me) one's struggles and that I am not sure what to do.

But at the same time, I have confidence and trust in this community of bloggers who walk with me on this road we call the autism spectrum. For as much as I need your help with this, I think I need to know that I am doing the best I can.

Even if that doesn't seem to be nearly enough.

OK. Enough of my melodrama. Out with it.

We are having a tough time explaining racial equality to Boo. As most of you probably know, Boo has Asperger's. He is, like many on the autism spectrum, a very literal-minded person. There is not much gray area in his world. Things are very much black and white.

You see where I am going with this? Hence the problem.

He came home from after-school care one day this week, proudly explaining to us that he organized a basketball game that day. The Blacks versus the Whites. He himself apparently grouped the kids by color to form the teams.

To say that we were utterly aghast at this is putting it mildly - and how the hell we didn't get a phone call or an expulsion notice is beyond me. But to Boo, it was a logical way of creating two teams. We tried to explain that this wasn't right, that you can't separate people based on the color of their skin, that this is not fair.

And he asked why and the best we could come up with was, "Because it Is. Not. Fair." That there are laws, that people fought and died so that everyone could be equal and treated fairly. We reminded him of Martin Luther King Jr. Of Rosa Parks.

We talked to him about people we know personally who are African-American. Who are in inter-racial relationships, and what if someone said they couldn't get married? "I dunno," was the response. We talked about his friends, his classmates, our neighbors. (One of the selling points of this school district and neighborhood for us was that it is much more racially diverse than the lilly-white one we moved from.) About President Obama.

I cannot find many resources online for teaching racial equality to kids with autism. Like everything else with parenting this particular individual child on the autism spectrum, they must have forgotten to give me the manual when we left the hospital eight years ago, so we're making this (all of this) up as we go. On Friday, I had occasion to go to the library sans kids, and I took advantage of that to check out some children's biographies, in hopes that the stories of African-American heroes will help.

We have read several of these books before. We have talked about these issues before, particularly during the 2008 Presidential election. And yet, my kid is the one who organizes a segregated basketball game and when you try to talk to him about it, it is an instantaneous tantrum from him, a scream-fest from him, a complete meltdown from him and a psychic meltdown from us.

This year especially, I welcome and embrace February as Black History Month. I'm hopeful that some of Boo's homework and worksheets that he will be bringing home will help reinforce and prompt additional dinner-table discussion.

And yet.

And yet I know all of this might not make a difference. That it might not be what Boo needs - whatever that is - to change what I fear is something stuck in his mind.

Maybe there aren't any right-and-wrong, black-and-white answers to this. Maybe all we can do is continue the dialogue, providing examples. Maybe we are talking too much. Maybe we need to be doing more, or doing something different.

Because right now, like so much of the quagmire of emotions that accompanies having a child on the autism spectrum, this feels as if we went astray, that we did something wrong. That we are doing something horribly wrong, that we are bad people.

That we are flailing and failing as parents and as people.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Trisha said...

I'm thinking that from Boo's perspective the issue was not really about one side being better than the other or even different from the other in any sort of substantive way. I agree that it's probably not the best for him to be dividing people based on race, but I've been in many a girls v. boys situation, in sports, card games, and the such not. Dividing people into teams based on gender is rather common (even when playing against each other), and I don't think that's different from dividing based on race. A lot of it is in intention. I guess what I'm trying to say is don't beat yourself up.

Infant Bibliophile said...

Have you seen "A Class Divided" (which I had remembered as Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes)? I was shown it often in school at various times. I have no idea if it is age appropriate, but it had a powerful impact on me when I first watched it. Oh wow, I just found that particular piece of the series online for free! I thought it only used to be available as part of an expensive civil rights series. I haven't watched this online one but I assume it is the same one I remember. It is very dated (it was when I watched it), but I remember seeing the adult's reactions remembering the experience as being very powerful. (Briefly, a teacher divides a young class based on physical traits, and the hatred sort of escalates ... later the kids are interviewed as adults and have very strong memories of the experience). I'm going to go rewatch it now!

Jodie said...

Oh hard, especially because you know he's not doing it because he's prejudiced but that's not what others will see. You could suggest he divides people by something else, but not many non-offensive things (like shirt colour) come in twos.

Niksmom said...

Aw, Melissa, please don't beat yourself up. Clearly, if you were a bad paret you wouldn't even be thinking about this issue much less asking for help.

I think you should put tit out there to the autism moms (and therapists) on Twitter and see what kind of feedback you get.


christa @ mental foodie said...

I agree with what Trisha said - I'd think that if it happens that half of the class wore red, and other half wore blue, he probably would've divided the teams into blue/red.

I was also going to suggest Jane Elliott's Blue Eye/Brown Eye too.

I don't know a lot about Asperger's, but I had read Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison
(He's Augusten Burrough's brother, who wrote Running with Scissors - a memoir I really enjoyed reading) and that had provided some insights (though I don't remember if a lot of them were kids-related.)

Emily said...

A few ideas here. First, if he's particularly logical (my Aspie is), then you can explain that dividing people up based on a single trait doesn't make sense because they have far more in common than they do that is different among them; if you rely only on that one difference, your excluding the 99% commonalities between them and being irrational. Thus, for any dividing like that, it's best to be random (number off and split out odds and evens) than to use ANY trait--male/female, skin color, eye color, etc.

And then further, you might--if he's amenable--challenge him with the in-betweens. How do you classify someone of Asian descent? What if they've got tanned skin or very light brown skin? What if you were using hair color? What about red heads? What about people who have two different colors or many in their hair? Do the same with eye color. It shows how pointless and difficult superficial classifications are--which gets across every point you probably want to make.

For any logically minded person, randomization is the best way to go in these situations.

Heather @36 balloons said...

It is actually quite appropriate for kids to draw distinctions and note differences. I came to really get the importance of discussing race from a chapter in NurtureShock (also part of that article quoted in a Salon piece) We have started at a much, much more basic place and found an easy reader "A Lesson for Martin Luther King Jr" to be a good jumping off point. It's him as a child dealing w/ a white friend who will no longer play with him. My 5yo is not on the spectrum (dyspraxic), but she requires very sequenced explanations. The historical aspect really grabbed her and sadly there are a plethora of examples. We moved from there to today things are a lot different, but it wasn't that long ago... It IS a hard topic to tackle and I can very much understand how challenging this will be to navigate.

Joeymom said...

I'm going to go with, race is the wrong angle. Boo doesn't understand because Boo isn't seeing this as a race issue. It is simply the color people's skin are. You can't get around that. The school didn't send home a letter, because the people who are working with him apparently understood- this wasn't about race, it was about category.

Having not read much, I don't know how old Boo is, but Joey is 7. He doesn't care about race, but he does notice color- last year, he noted that he was apricot. And that some of his friends were brown. He found it fascinating, not as a race issue, but as a difference of color- actually, a diversity thing. He noticed people were different.

So I think I would go that angle- talk about the fact that people are different, and how much fun it is to be different, and yet we are all people. That we don't divide up into teams by categories; the teams are the categories, and we put people in them randomly, so that we have a mix of everybody on every team.

If Boo is old enough, explaining that people don't like to be categorized by what they look like would be the next issue to tackle. People want to be seen for who they are, not what they look like. Again, you mix people up because you want the diversity of who those people are, the "look like" is not important information. Then you bring in all the Martin Luther King stuff to talk about why people don't like to be categorized by how they look.

And I think you're a fantastic parent, working hard to address an issue that is, at best, titchy, especially with children- and all the more so because it is such a non-issue to Boo. Trying to explain to children that what they are doing and how other people interpret what they are doing is two different things- that's incredibly hard. You haven't done anything wrong at all- in fact, the reason this is such a non-issue to Boo is because you're doing things right..

Anonymous said...

Clearly you are not a bad parent. So, let go of that right away.

And I don't think you need to *worry* too much, I think that what he did made sense at the time (easy visual distinction between two teams) and I'm pretty sure he will eventually get the message.

I'd lay off for a bit, let what you've already told him sink in. Maybe in a few days you could try a social story? Those work wonders in our house. If there isn't one on this topic, you could write your own, or ask one of his teachers to help.

And, considering that the other boys saw nothing wrong with the teams being divided as such, maybe a word to the teacher so she can incorporate it into a lesson plan for black history month??

pixiemama said...

Hi, I'm new here via Niksmom.

Just a thought, but, like Kristen, I suggest laying off, letting it sink in, then reminding him of all the things we have in common, black or white - we have hair, we have the same organs... whatever you think will resonate with the same message - we are all people, regardless of the color of our skin.

If your school guidance counselor is any good, I would pull he or she in to help. Ours is fantastic and probably has a million ideas that are better than mine.

I understand your shock - but I know you understand the VERY literal nature of the brain of an (to quote John Robison) Aspergian. Not his fault, either - he's just calling it like he sees it.

Nice to meet you. :)

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

To all of you - thank you ever so much for this. It means much more than I can possibly say. Thank you.

Trisha - I do tend to beat myself up about these things. A lot. Working on that. :)

Infant Bib - I know I've heard of "A Class Divided," but haven't seen it. Will need to watch that.

Jodie - thanks ... a good thought.

Niksmom - good suggestion re: Twitter. Didn't have a chance to, but I'm guessing some of the new folks are from you ... ? :)

Christa - I need to read "Look Me In the Eye" (or listen to it; I have the audio in the car). Thanks for the reminder!

Emily - makes perfect sense, absolutely!

Heather - That's one of the ones I picked up from the library, too.

Joeysmom - our little guys are close in age (Boo just turned 8), and the fascination with different skin colors ... yes, he is absolutely clued into this and spends a lot of time talking about it, from more of a fscination perspective.

kristen - as always, thank you. I think you (and others) might be right about laying off a bit ... we will try that. :)

pixiemama - VERY nice to meet you too as I've been reading your blog for a little while now (coupla weeks or so) and we have a connection in that we are both from PA. Pointing out the similarities is a good thought.

Thank you all, so much!