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Growing up with Autism without a Diagnosis: Part 3- Fourth Grade through Sixth Grade

At some point, I don’t know where it came from, but my family got interested in having pet fish. Dad bought a fish aquarium, and we helped pick some decorations to put in such as a bridge and various plants. We put colored gravel at the bottom. We went to a store in Gettysburg (Where the current Food 101 is today) close to the dentist’s office to purchase our first fish. We started with head light-tail light fish and later moved to some more interesting types such as a Mickey Mouse fish, a cat fish (I liked the name and that it had whiskers), and a shark. My birthday cake showed a fish aquarium with the gravel made from Nerd’s candy that year. It was an important birthday that I had waited for, for years—my ninth birthday, since my favorite number at the time was nine. I was excited to be able to have one of those large, green candles shaped like the number nine on my cake.

The intermediate grades went smoother than the primary grades, though new challenges did arise. During the fall of fourth grade year, asthma became a problem again. The previous year I had gym class at the end of the day, and it caused an asthma flair up. My bus ride was an hour both ways, and now sometimes I really felt bad (due to asthma) by the time I arrived at home. During the beginning of fourth grade year my parents were already timing my arrival times at home in the evening. Sometime in September my parents wrote a letter to the school concerning my bus route. The bus would get close to my house, but then turned onto Boyd’s Hollow Road causing the route to take about an hour on the way home, as well as in the morning. As mentioned earlier, I was having asthma problems; the school changed the route allowing me to get home earlier to help with my asthma and also to lessen time spent on the bus.

Intramurals were new this year which was a period of time, at the end of the day, where the school was split into eight teams that played various sports against each other. Finding the correct team made me nervous, and I was also unnerved when my team played kick ball as its location was at the farthest edge of the school yard. I was afraid intramurals would dismiss late, and I would somehow miss the bus to go home.

Christmas of 1990 was the year my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System which helped with social interaction at school. I also received a green basket with Crayola markers which led to a new tradition. My parents put a large blank piece of paper from a roll on the table as a tablecloth, and Dave and I drew on it, decorating it with our new markers. It gave us something to do while Christmas dinner was being prepared since many of our toys had to be put together. It looked great and was very colorful! A clear vinyl tablecloth was laid on top of the paper to protect it so it could be enjoyed for many days.

Prosopagnosia (Face-Blindness) came back to haunt me during one trip to the grocery store. A girl came up to me at the store to say hello. I didn’t recognize her. I was embarrassed. I found out she was the classmate who moved to McKnightstown sometime around third grade. I remembered her, but I wasn’t able to recognize her.

My major school field trip for the year was to Indian Echo Caverns, Chocolate World, and Zoo America. While on the bus, I discovered some details about U.S. 15 that I never noticed before. Looking backwards while riding the bus, I saw the large green highway signs that told the milage to the PA 234 exit. I also noticed for the first time, the Capital City Mall in Camp Hill. As for the destinations, I enjoyed the caves (though I paid for them later with asthma problems), and enjoyed getting to go to Chocolate World and Zoo America again.

Asthma continued to be a problem during the year. Color Day was a day of track and field events held at Biglerville High School, with each elementary school in our district wearing their school colors while competing. It was held towards the end of May, and was for fourth through sixth grade students. I was not able to attend that year because of asthma, which ultimately made it harder the next year when I was the only student not to know what he/she was doing. Asthma continued to plague me throughout the summer. One disruption for me was the result of asthma on July 4th, 1991. I wasn’t able to see the firework show from the neighbors as I needed to go to the E.R. When we went home, Dave took Tinker Toys and created “fireworks” with them to provide me with my own personal firework show! After one too many trips to the Emergency Room and me being on too much medication, my parents decided to switch both my asthma doctor and pediatrician.

The new asthma doctor was more up to date and over time had my asthma straightened out. The office enabled us to buy a nebulizer machine of our own which cut out the trips to the ER. The doctor’s appointments were long, but thorough. He was an excellent doctor that I persuaded my grandfather to switch to as well. This was a big accomplishment! I was only ten years old, but he listened to me and previously wouldn’t listen to others on the subject. His health greatly improved.

Another challenge I had that summer was learning to ride my bicycle without training wheels. Previously, my parents taught Dave and me how to ride bicycles. I had a green bike with training wheels and Dave used his tricycle. We would ride on the private dirt road next to the house. During the summer of fourth grade, I learned to ride without using the training wheels, but I felt it was hard to balance myself. Once we went to the elementary school parking lot to practice, and I was doing well in the back parking lot. Someone suggested that I go around front and ride into the playground; I did, but didn’t know to coast down the hill, causing me to fly over the handle bars when trying to come to a stop as the bike picked up speed, and I was at the edge of the blacktopped part of the playground. I was afraid to ride my bike from then on, and it was hard when I needed to go practice it. We didn’t really have a good place to ride. The private road was dirt with loose stones, the yard was difficult, and the only other option was to pack up the bikes and take them somewhere. After moving to our current location, riding conditions didn’t improve, and Dave only learned to cycle well when he got to Taiwan and developed it into an interest, as well as a mode of transportation.

With fifth grade, there were a few things that I thought I would like, but became challenges. In math class, math contracts were introduced where students took a pre-test at the beginning of every chapter, and worked at their own pace. I was hoping to get farther in the book than usual, but using the book to teach myself the concepts didn’t work out which made the subject harder. I learn better by direct instruction. The “City” was introduced and was after the afternoon recess. In theory it would have been fun. The city was a period of time where students learned what it would be like to “live and work” in an urban setting. The teacher created “money” that students worked for by participating in a “job.” The jobs were various duties that students normally would have done, with the addition of the police. Students now had to “pay” to go to the restroom. They also had to buy a house (their desk), and a car (a picture was cut out of magazine). Extra money was used for whatever the student wanted. The problem? When jobs were being offered, I was afraid to pick the best job, which was the cop, and being slow to decide, I had to take what was left. Even worse, the “cop” would always fine me for having a messy desk, something I couldn’t help, due to lack of organizational skills, meaning that I always had a lot less “money” to use then many students. Once I tried to charge a surcharge to the cop for not paying his bill on time for the “business” I worked at, which was being in charge of student use of the restroom, but the teacher wouldn’t let me. I felt frustrated, but couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t think so highly of the cop as a result.

I enjoyed recess, though in a different way than many students. Most students liked playing together and socializing. I had a few friends though they tended to do activities at recess that I had no interest in. A friend did try to play with me occasionally by offering to play on the see-saws though it didn’t work very well, as I was afraid when my end went up into the air! I developed some interesting things of my own to do on the playground. By fifth grade year, my family had a Nintendo, and I had a chance to get a number of games and get decent at them. On the playground sometimes I would look up at the clouds, and pretend that I was looking at “Zone T” from Rescue Rangers, which was a fictional stage that took place in the clouds, that Dave and I had created. I’d stare up and imagine Chip jumping on the clouds throwing crates at various enemies from the game that “appeared” in that stage. I also liked to jump from grass tuft to grass tuft trying to avoid the dirt. I pretended I was Mega Man from the video game series, and that the stage was Mud Man. The dirt I pretended was mud, and was to be avoided. I imagined the music from the game in my head. In the case of Mud Man, it shared the same music as Hard Man did in Mega Man 3, as the stage took place largely underground. Sometimes I would simply like to walk around thinking about various things going on in my life, and others just observe what was happening on the playground, or the backs of houses on Main Street (which was significant to me when I realized I could see them from the school). I wasn’t bored. Unfortunately, Mom felt bad that I kept to myself, but I had other things that I was doing, and I was happy.

During March, 1992, my class started to prepare for Environmental Education Camp held at Camp Nawakwa. Time at school was spent on students picking two friends to room with (they would be paired with three students from one of the other elementary schools). We talked about possible ways for me to get to camp. My bus happened to pass the camp; it was suggested that I could get dropped off there in the morning of the first day instead of school. There was a parents meeting held on March 24th giving the details. My parents thought the trip wouldn’t be good for my asthma (similarly to how the caves weren’t) and talked to the asthma doctor about it. He matter-of-factly said I shouldn’t go, and that was that.

So I wouldn’t feel as if I was being punished by having to go to school, a form was filled out to get permission to stay home from camp due to health issues. For it to be approved, I needed to go on an educational trip, and complete some alternate assignments (a packet of environmental related material.) Without approval, I would have to spend the three days in the fourth or sixth grade classroom. On May 13th (the first day of camp), I went to work with Dad who was making sales calls. The other two days were spent at home, and I had to complete some worksheets on similar content to what would have been taught at camp. Interestingly enough seven years later on May 19th ,1999, as a senior in high school, I went to camp. After all these years, I finally spent a day at Environmental Education Camp when Mom was a teacher. I watched her teach her fifth grade lesson on trees. I had a lot of fun, and had a chance to help a little. I finally was able to experience a taste of what camp was like that I was denied so many years earlier!

I was tested for occupational therapy needs, as the school could now provide that service. Towards the second half the year I started O.T. and would have it for the rest of my time in elementary school. In fifth grade the focus was mostly on performance skills, compared to the following year when the focus was more to help me with life in the classroom.

My class went on a field trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield. Though the trip was close to home, I enjoyed it as I like history, and I liked seeing where the events of the battle happened compared to all the places that my family regularly visited in Gettysburg. In addition to seeing the places we talked about in our textbook, we held a mock battle where the guide taught us how they shot their rifles. Also, on this trip instead of a brown-bag lunch, we actually got to eat at a fast-food restaurant. I picked in advance to go to McDonald’s to get Chicken McNuggets, while my friend chose Hardees. Mom was my chaperone, so I didn’t mind not being with my friend.

This year I was able to go to Color Day. While many students enjoyed Color Day, I was uncomfortable having to navigate an event in a large open area with a lot of unfamiliar students. I remembered crying after the initial school performance was done, and students went on their way to find either their first activity, or to find friends and hang out. Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother was there in the stands, and between the principal and my friend, I found my way up into the stands to where she was sitting. My friend would come and go during the day, and people would help me find my way to my events. Mom was there, but as a teacher with responsibilities. She tried to see my events. During a running event I started out slowly, but sped up due to my mom cheering me on, and I won a green ribbon! When the events were over the students could leave, and I went over to my grandparents’ house for the rest of the day, which was enjoyable. Mom had to stay and finish her workday.

Sixth grade year, my brother was in first grade so we rode the bus together which was nice. He was always my best friend even though he was five years younger than me, thus I didn’t need as much social interaction at school. Luckily for me, he rode the bus the year that the driver insisted on “three in a seat,” meaning that there was just one extra student on the end of my seat. My friend who rode my bus would not have been a guaranteed choice as he liked to “seat hop” and visit with many of the kids who rode the bus. Since Mom was a reading teacher, and spent the end of the day at Arendtsville Elementary School, my brother and I were able to go home with her.

As mentioned in my blog about chess, I learned to play chess sixth grade year, and it finally gave me something to do at recess with my friends. It also helped me to develop another friendship. Other times I would just walk around, and think about things.

O.T. this year focused on help in the classroom. I got a tilted desk. It was talked about taking my schoolbooks out of my desk, and putting them on top of another desk so they would be easy to find, but this didn’t come to fruition. With high school around the corner, plans were worked on about how I would navigate that experience. Suggestions included an easy to see schedule, and seeing where the classes were located ahead of time. The O.T. also acted as a counselor when I talked about high school concerns during the meetings. The sixth grade classes actually took a trip to the high school to scope out classroom locations the one day. I remember the geography room being in the basement, sitting on chairs up on platforms in the music room with the teachers giving out final information before boarding the buses to go back to the elementary school, and the soda machine in the building for students to use (though as I found out later, it was only for after school use).

My parents told me I needed to participate in an extra-curricular activity. I joined the school newspaper run by the computer lab/playground aide. My role was to write a column about Nintendo, and also a small section that presented trivia out of a magazine the school had. Usually, I had enough time to write my articles during the period allotted, though occasionally I needed to use the computer lab during recess to finish an article in time.

The Nintendo articles mainly were about Mega Man games, featuring passwords and Robot Master (bosses) beating strategies. In May I was given a unique assignment. The third-grade class had been reading the book, Charlotte’s Web, and attended a fair towards the end of the year. They ate lunch outside under the maple tree, instead of in the cafeteria, and went beyond the blacktop on the playground to participate in a number of activities. My assignment was to write an article about this event. This was the most difficult assignment I had, as it required me to actually get information about the event from one of the teachers.

The major field trip this year was to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland and one other place of our choice. Students could choose between the Baltimore Aquarium (which I have been to before, but was excited to go back to) or the Science Center which included an Imax theater. After a class vote the Baltimore Aquarium won. Students were each given a point card from the beginning of the year. Students were given points for good behaviors and good grades. Poor performance would delete points. The initial goal was five hundred points, but it was increased to one thousand points by the end of the year. A last-minute change was made to go to the Science Center as there was some problem with getting into the aquarium. This trip was different in the fact that Dad took off time from work to be a chaperone this time. The trip started with a tour of the fort, then we went on a short boat ride and finished with the Science Center.

In April of 1993 for a school program, my class was to sing the Spanish song, “De Colores.” Every student also needed to have a role in the production. I was involved in the stage crew helping to set up. I was incredibly nervous. The day started with a supper at Shank’s in Bendersville as I needed to get to school shortly after supper. Fortunately, when I arrived at school, one of my friends was also on the stage crew team which helped me with feeling comfortable as I talked to him while waiting for instructions. The performance was for the PTO that evening.

Unlike a lot of people with autism, it’s amazing I was able to go through regular schooling, and even perform well. I was lucky I didn’t require the special classes and that my differences didn’t cross my mind as a child. As an adult I realized that my parents, in particularly Mom, had been my learning support. She also taught me study skills.

Many of my childhood interests I had, never did leave me. I even bought copies of some of my old toys to try to play (within the last ten years!) but I didn’t know what to do! I forgot how to play! This is the basis for why I don’t want to give up my childhood for adulthood, which I view as being scary, unpredictable, and full of let-downs with very few privileges and perks.

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