There wasn’t really much going on in Mrs. Moore’s fourth period AP English class. It was a Thursday morning and half of the class was out sick. Since there were only five students seated in the room and Mrs. Moore didn’t really have anything planned that day, she let them do whatever they wanted. She trusted her students to be on their best behavior as she left to drop something off in the office.
Tyler, who had played multiple sports since he was eight, immediately pulled out his phone so he could show the latest meme to Ethan, one of his teammates from the varsity baseball team. Ethan’s walrus laugh annoyed Emily, a cheerleader who just wanted to reapply her Golden Peach Lip Gloss in peace. Once she was done, she pulled out her unfinished note cards for her upcoming AP History test. Her friend Juliana, the Class President and captain of the dance team, also pulled out her phone, but she was more interest in what was trending on Twitter in general than just the latest meme. Everyone minded his or her own business until the fifth and final student went up to the door.
Mrs. Moore kept a small dry-erase board by the door that anyone could write their latest update on. If someone had something like a big audition coming up or if they had just won some sort of championship or contest, they were free to announce it on the board. The dirty blonde in the navy cardigan took a black marker and scribbled on the board:
"Penelope has completed her Girl Scout Gold Award Project and will receive her award in the spring."
“Hey Penelope, I didn’t know you were a Girl Scout,” Ethan blurted out.
Everyone else looked up at the tallest girl in the class as she tried to hide her embarrassment. She hurried back to her seat and tried and failed to act like nothing had happened.
“What’s a Gold Award?” Ethan asked, not noticing the embarrassment he had caused.
“I didn’t think anyone actually read that board,” Penelope squeaked like the mouse she was.
“Sure we do. Most of us don’t call each other out,” Juliana said while glaring at Ethan.
“Do you mind telling me about this award you’re going to get?” Ethan asked without paying the Class President much attention.
“No, but I don’t think you will find it interesting,” Penelope replied.
“I would still like to hear about it.”
“I would like to know, too,” Tyler piped up as he put his phone away.
“Me too,” Emily said as she placed her cards back into her bag.
Penelope was speechless. Unless she was giving a presentation, no one cared about what she had to say. Besides, she wasn’t a big fan of socializing. She wanted to just crawl into a hole, but she was also flattered to be the center of attention for once in her life. She decided to go for it. After all, when else was she going to have more than one person be interested in what she had to say?
“The Gold Award is the highest honor that a Girl Scout can receive,” Penelope explained with the rare pride that she had. “Only about five percent of eligible scouts receive it. Unlike the Bronze and Silver Awards, you can’t complete it with your troop. You can allow another scout to assist you, but only you can receive credit for the project as a whole. Once you decide what you want to do, you must get it approved by the nearest Girl Scout Office before you can actually start.”
“Does it matter what you do for the project?” Juliana asked. Surprisingly, she had put her phone away and was using the same posture she would use whenever Mrs. Moore was speaking.
“As long as it can make a difference, it doesn’t really matter,” the scout continued. “You can do anything from cleaning up an abandon garden to organizing a book drive. I decided to create a drama club for a group of kids with special needs.”
“You mean like kids with autism?” Tyler asked.
“They don’t like the person-first language where you say “with autism” instead of “autistic”.”
“But why is that?” Emily asked. “It’s not like their autism defines them.”
“You’re right. Autism doesn’t define them; they define autism.”
It was actually hard to believe that the colossal dirty-blonde mouse of the class was speaking with such clarity and confidence. Sure, she wrote the best speeches, but she never sounded so sure of herself whenever she delivered them. Heck, she also had a difficult time delivering monologues in her theatre classes, and yet here she was acting like she was delivering the speech of a lifetime. It was a shame that more than half of the class was absent for this.
“Autism really isn’t as bad as you might think it is,” the confident scout carried on. “What you need to understand is that their brains work differently from ours. They’re not necessarily super geniuses, but they’re not stupid either. Imagine that you’re an alien trying to blend in with humans. You struggle with trying to figure out how humans interact with each other and what exactly they do in their everyday lives. You might have no idea what you’re doing on Earth, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not bright on your home planet. You just weren’t meant to be a typical human being.”
“Wow, I had no idea,” Emily replied with genuine surprise.
“Was it difficult at all?” Ethan asked. “Running the camp, I mean. I’ve only been around a small handful of autistic people, and they almost always yell and throw a fit.”
“What you just described is known as “sensory overload”,” Penelope answered. “That’s when you pretty much lose control of one or more of your senses. Anything could set you off like an extremely bright light or a siren or an itchy sweater. You could also be affected by a last minute change of plans or too much happening at once. It’s like you’re a glass and sensory overload is the water that fills you up and refuses to stop until you’ve overflowed for too long. That’s why autistic people act that way.”
“I always thought those kinds of kids were just having tantrums,” Juliana said.
“Oh no!” Penelope snapped. “Kids who throw tantrums do so to get something they want. Kids who have sensory overload or “meltdowns” don’t really know what they want or what to do.”
“But how do you calm them down?” Tyler asked.
“Stimming,” the scout replied.
“It’s the repetition of movements or sounds and other things. Some of the more common types of stimming include flapping your hands, rolling around on the floor, and rocking back and forth on your feet. Autistics stim whenever they feel overwhelmed or anxious. If any of my campers have a meltdown or feel one coming up, I would take them to a special area with one of my counselors where they could calm down. This area had soft blankets, stress balls, soft and colorful lighting, and chewable toys that could be used for relaxation.”
“Chewable toys?” Juliana asked. “These kids are beginning to sound like dogs.”
“Hilarious. One form of stimming that most people don’t discuss is chewing. One of my campers has this chewable necklace that she wears around her neck in case of an overload emergency. She rarely has meltdowns with it on.”
“What kind of activities do you have your campers participate in?” Ethan asked.
“Our first week consisted of acting and improv games. Their favorite game was Three Things, which is where you must name three things based on the prompt that another player gives you. For example, Emily, I might tell you to name three reasons why you would sneak out of your house in the middle of the night.”
“Do you want me to actually answer that?” Emily asked with a small look of shock on her pretty face.
“No, I was only giving an example.”
“Are you sure? Because I can answer you right now.”
“Ok, Emily. Name three reasons why you would sneak out of your house in the middle of the night. I will count out each answer.”
“Alright. I would sneak out of my house to go to a party.”
“I would sneak out of my house to meet someone.”
“I would sneak out of my house to bury something.”
Everyone’s eyes widen with fear as silence filled the room.
“Uhh…three things?” Penelope squeaked.
“It’s not something I would actually do, but someone would do it!” Emily quickly said.
“Yeah, but you were supposed to name three reasons why you would sneak of the house,” Tyler said with a grin.
“That could mean anyone in general!” Emily said defensively.
“I would sneak out of my house to bury something!” Juliana said in her best impersonation of her friend.
“Oh, shut up! Besides, it could’ve been a time capsule for all we know! It doesn’t have to be a body!”
“What’s going on in here?”
Everyone turned to the door to see Mrs. Moore. She had been listening from the other side of the door the whole time, and she entered when Emily tried to talk her way out of the awkward conversation.
“I had written on the board about my Gold Award Project, and the others wanted to know all about it,” Penelope quickly explained.
“Congratulations, Penelope!” the teacher cheerfully replied. “What did you do to complete it? After hearing what Emily just said, I hope it didn’t involve dead people.”
Emily put her head down on her desk and covered herself with her hoodie in pure embarrassment.
“No dead bodies!” Penelope laughed. “I created and ran a drama camp for special needs kids. We played some improv games and wrote our own show.”
“What was it about?” Mrs. Moore asked.
“It was actually a collection of three different plays written and acted by three different groups. They all wrote scripts based on their special interests. For those who don’t know, autistics have these special interests that they obsess over. Other people may not understand, but what’s important is that these things make autistic people happy. For instance, this one man whose name I can never pronounce correctly grew up obsessing over video games and collecting insects, which led to him creating Pokémon.”
“Satoshi Tajiri is autistic?” Ethan gasped.
“Yes. And you all know the movie Ghostbusters, right?”
“Who doesn’t?” Tyler asked. “Wait, did an autistic person direct the movie?”
“No, but an Aspie did co-write and star in it.”
“Aspie?” Emily asked. “You mean like Asperger’s? But I thought we were talking about autism.”
“What you should always remember is that autism has its own spectrum,” Penelope explained. “Nobody on it is the same. Asperger’s is a mild form of autism that is almost considered its own thing. As I was saying, an Aspie by the name of Dan Aykroyd co-wrote and starred in the movie. The film was inspired by his special interest in the paranormal. Most of his family had either seen ghosts or studied them, which is why he easily became obsessed.”
“No way!” Ethan exclaimed. “That is so cool!”
“I had no idea,” Juliana said. “I never thought that anyone with autism could’ve—“
“Autistic people,” Tyler corrected.
“You’re supposed to say autistic people, not people with autism.”
“Oh, right. I had no idea that autistic people could make these kinds of accomplishments. I guess I need to spend more time with them.”
“That most certainly isn’t a bad idea,” Mrs. Moore chimed in. “The best way to truly understand a certain group of people is to talk to them directly.”
And with that, the bell rang. The students quickly packed up their things and headed out of the room, but not before Ethan asked Penelope if she could teach the class how to play Three Things next time. She said that she would gladly do so, but then her teacher stopped her before she could leave.
“Penelope, are you headed to lunch or class?”
“Do you mind if I speak to you for a minute? I could write a note for your teacher explaining why you’re tardy.”
Penelope actually did mind because she never wanted to miss a second of her theatre classes, but she didn’t want to hurt her favorite teacher’s feelings.
“I don’t mind at all, Mrs. Moore.”
“Did you tell them?”
“Tell them what?”
“That you’re autistic.”
“No, of course not. Why would I do that?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you seemed so confident as you explained autism to the others that I thought you might’ve—“
“I would never tell anyone about that.”
It was such a disappointment to see this girl go from a mouse to a lioness and back to a mouse in such a short amount of time. She had just taught a small handful of students a bit about autism, and she did it all as if she were Colin Firth in the final scene in The King’s Speech. Her mother had shown her that movie on repeat to help her grow more confident as a public speaker, and all of the encouragement she had gained from the move’s two-hour runtime had just been thrown out of the window. What would King George IV say?
“Penelope, you are a remarkable creature,” Mrs. Moore said with a smile.
“You mean that I’m not human,” the mouse whispered.
“You said that autistics are like aliens trying to blend in with humans, so I think it’s safe to say that you are a remarkable creature. Didn’t you say that they weren’t meant to be typical human beings?”
“You are different, not less. You may face obstacles everyday, but there is nothing wrong with you. When you were in my English Honors class last year, I was surprised when I was informed that you had an IEP and were on the spectrum. I’ve had students with different conditions and disabilities, but I never had a student on the autism spectrum and it took me by surprise. You’re already changing the world, my dear.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think these kids take me seriously if I tell them.”
“Why? They took you seriously just a second ago.”
“I’m sure they would rather listen to an expert than me.”
“My dear, anyone can research the spectrum, but you’re the true expert because you lived this life. You’ve seen and heard it all. If you tell them, I’m sure they well respect you the way they did just a second ago.”
“But what if I’m not ready to tell the world who I really am?”
“Then you must wait until you feel the moment is right. It’s all up to you. Now, go to your next class.”
Three marathons were being held in Penelope’s head as she stumbled through Theatre III with her scene partners. Should she have announced her project on the board? What if her classmates learn more about autism to the point that they connect the dots and discover the truth? Will they actually respect her? Will they treat her like a normal human being? She got so lost in her head that she called line for the first time in her life.
Her mind was finally clear when she made her way back to the Theatre for rehearsal after the final bell rang. She could finally focus on one thing at a time without anything getting in her—
“Hey! Penelope! Wait up!”
“Hey, do you have a minute?”
Ethan slowed down from sprinting down the hallway and spent about two minutes trying to catch his breath. It was no surprise that he was the fastest on the baseball field.
“Hey, I was wondering if I could message you on Facebook sometime later. You see, I have this cousin on the spectrum. I never get to see him a lot because he has anxiety whenever he travels, but I’ll get to visit him for Christmas. I haven’t seen him in almost a decade, and I would like some advice from you before I go.”
“Like how I should act around him or what I should do in case he has a meltdown.”
“I’m sure you could Google it.”
“I know, but why do that when I could ask you? You ran a camp and everything.”
Penelope was this close to telling him everything right then and there. She wanted to tell him that she was autistic and that it was totally awesome that he was taking her seriously and asking for advice and how badly she wanted to hug him with her gratitude, but she didn’t. She had developed too much self-control over the years.
“Ok, here,” she said pulling out her phone. “I’m sending you a friend request right now. Message me all the questions you have and I’ll get back you as soon as I can.”
“Cool, thanks! I’ll talk to you soon!”
The baseball cutie then turned around and sprinted off to catch up with Tyler at the other end of the hallway. As Penelope made her way to the auditorium, she could feel this glee that she hadn’t felt since her final day at the camp. It was the satisfaction of making a difference, and it was the proudest she had ever been of herself. Even if she didn’t tell anyone that she was autistic before the year was over, she knew she was slowly but surely changing the world.
Name three reasons why being autistic is great
1.) It’s like having a superpower that most people can’t have.
2.) You’re not like other people.
3.) You can see the world in a unique way.