April is Austism Awareness Month, and in honor of such, I'm re-visiting a few of my favorite posts related to teaching students with disabilities. This one was originally published November 19, 2007.
The young, perpetually-cheerful student in my 8th grade social skills class (Angel--the one who referred to me as a Fluttery Butterfly on the first day of school) invited me to the annual Thanksgiving Dinner hosted by the students in the cognitive disabilities classroom. I graciously accepted, of course (What kind of fool turns down a Thanksgiving dinner?) I arrived to see not a classroom, but a beautiful dining room, complete with tablecloths, place settings, and little turkey table favors. Angel sat across from me, enjoying the celebratory atmosphere. A giant turkey was leg perched among the rest of the traditional Thanksgiving fare on her plate.
I was surprised that Angel was interested in eating part of a turkey. Like most kids with autism, she has a fixation; she thinks constantly about animals (all kinds). She spends every spare minute of her free time talking about animals, playing with small animal figures, or making animal figures out of Kleenex. She even catches flies in my classroom window and makes pets of them, carrying them around in paper cups with comfy tissue-beds inside. Aside from animals, she also loves to play outside, with friends or alone, especially in the woods near her home. She once told me that she got lost in the woods. When I asked if she had been afraid, she said, "Noooo!" (like I was crazy). Matter-of-factly, she shared,
"I just talked to Jesus and asked him to help me find my way, and he did."
"What are you thankful for, Angel?" I asked, modeling polite conversation.
"My family," she offered, just as politely, and automatically. Thinking some more, she put her fork down and started slowly, growing with enthusiasm,
"Playing outside....running in the fields. And of course, the forest! Oh, the forest!" (Here, her eyes lit up.) "Climbing up in my favorite tree......sitting up there for hours and hours....Now that's heaven." Grinning from ear to ear, she reached again for her fork.
Clearly, although Angel has the cognitive age of a five year old, she appreciates the value of a carefree existence. She doesn't worry about turkeys and where they come from. She doesn't worry about getting lost in the woods or falling out of a tree. She embraces life as it comes and is grateful for the little things it has to offer. We can all learn from her example.
"How 'bout you?" Angel asked.
"I'm thankful for you," I replied. And I meant it.