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Touch

We received an email from one of Schuyler’s teachers this week.

Well. That is VERY rarely a good way to start.

There’s a problem. Schuyler is touching her classmates. Not so much her fellow special ed students, because those interactions are watched and regulated pretty closely. No, it’s neurotypical kids who are getting touched by Schuyler, and some of them don’t like it. A few of them have complained to the teacher about it, and thus the email to her parents.

This is a tricky situation. On one hand, the email made clear, Schuyler isn’t touching anyone inappropriately. The teacher said it wasn’t the nature of the touching itself, but just the fact that it’s happening. On the other hand, I recognize that students have an absolute right not to be touched if it makes them uncomfortable. I would never make the argument otherwise. Well, of course not.

At the same time, however, there are several ways that this can be approached, and the path that a teacher takes, particularly a mainstream teacher, tells us a great deal about the expectations of both a school and society at large with regard to kids who develop differently from birth.

There’s a near-universal fact about nonverbal kids who don’t have social or sensory issues. They touch. They’re not creepy gropers or anything, but a kid who has grown up without the benefit of spoken language is a kid who has spent his or her life tugging at shirt sleeves, touching hands, drawing attention to their faces, practically begging the world around them to try to understand what they need to communicate. Nonverbal kids touch. They touch as little children, but as they get older and their skills improve (if they do), the need to physically in react with others never goes away. This is particularly true of their interactions with their neurotypical peers. Schuyler touches other kids because she is desperate for them to hear her, and to understand her.

So what is to be done? The schools have their own policies and their own procedures, and that’s fine. I get that. Every kid has the protected right to have their need for personal space to be respected. That’s a very real concern.

But at the same time, there’s a teachable moment here. As often as I’m told I need to engage in those moments, I’m surprised and frankly disappointed that in this case, that moment has been ignored. There’s an opportunity to explain to these mainstream students about how a kid like Schuyler communicates, and why it is that she may be touching them. It’s a chance to expand our society’s tolerance for the obstacles that kids like Schuyler face.

But that’s not what happened here, and frankly, the conversations I’ve had with other parents suggest it rarely happens anywhere. We live in a society where the public schools require a level of conformity that can be very challenging for kids like ours to meet. There’s an inflexibility that reenforces that conformity; some schools even have a zero tolerance approach to touching, where not only are teachers forbidden to have physical contact with students, but even the students aren’t allowed to touch. I understand the fears and the very real abuses that have led us to this place. But for kids like Schuyler, such rigidity means that not only do they have to work hard to integrate with their mainstream peers, but the threat of punishment for their different ways of interacting with others requires them to expend energy trying to pass as neurotypical.

Passing is hard for our kids. It’s hard, and it’s usually a waste of time and damaging to their already fragile self-esteem. And when they fail to pass, as they are almost always doomed to, they feel that failure keenly. Schuyler understands that she’s different, and now she understands that if she wants to succeed in her school, she’s got a choice to make. The choice that the school deems as appropriate is the one where she doesn’t communicate, where she learns to keep her hands to herself, and her words to herself.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But part of that answer could involve trying to expand the level of tolerance for how our different kids communicate, how they feel that they literally need to reach out, and how a little bit of patience and focus could make the difference in the life of someone who is desperate to be understood.

As for us, her parents, I won’t pretend that either of us can be entirely or even mostly objective about this. I’m not sure we even should be. But we will talk to Schuyler about the problem, as we have many times before. We will try to convince her of the need to keep her hands to herself, even when it means that she is ignored, walked away from, silenced. We will try to convince her to pass, even though that feels entirely wrong, and hope that in doing so, we’re not smothering a tiny piece of our little girl, the piece that reaches out to be understood.

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