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Leah Hager Cohen: The experience taught them to look beyond the reductive thinking that labels tend to foster. (seanbonner/flickr)

Every school day for five years, I drove to and from the low brick building on a shady residential street where each of my three children, in succession, attended preschool. The May Center’s primary mission was to serve individuals with autism spectrum disorders. My kids weren’t on that spectrum; they were, as I soon learned to call them, “typically developing,” or “typicals.” But one of the preschool classrooms was integrated. That is, a few spots were reserved for kids not on the spectrum. When it came time to send my oldest to preschool, my first choice was The May.

Not that I’d previously known of it. I stumbled across it in the yellow pages; it was close by; I made an appointment. Only when I arrived for the tour did I learn it was a school for the developmentally disabled. I loved it right away — the spacious, cheery classrooms, the warm engagement of the staff. It was clear: no one chose to work there who didn’t feel a strong commitment to helping all kinds of children grow. But the main reason I fell for the place was that it felt familiar, like home.

I, too, had attended an integrated preschool — in my case, the Lexington School for the Deaf. My parents worked there, and we lived on the grounds, so it had seemed natural. As a 3- and 4- and 5-year-old, I’d been one of a minority of hearing kids in a primarily deaf classroom; now my children would be among the few typicals in a group of differently developing peers.

Upon hearing that my kids went to school with autistic classmates, people often looked at me askance. “What is that like?” they’d ask carefully. Meaning: How could you do that to them? I’d try to explain. To grow up among those whom society deems “other,” and to begin that exposure at an early age, before having absorbed and assimilated such distinctions, before having developed the capacity to see the world in terms of “us” and “them” — what greater openness could I wish upon my children?

Our years at The May were pretty blissful. The kids learned about shapes and letters and weather, how to hold scissors and how to share crayons. They sang silly songs, played with soap bubbles and once a year put on a show for the families. When I went to pick them up in the afternoon, I’d often hang out a while and watch them play. Early on, I’d put energy into speculating about which of their classmates were on the spectrum. Sometimes I’d observe my own kids and try to guess how another parents might assess them. Typical? Autistic? I had to shrug. Pretty soon I stopped trying to categorize and sort, and found myself simply noticing the children’s particularities, each by each.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those kids lately, prompted by autism in the news. I read an excerpt of “Life, Animated,” Ron Suskind’s book about his autistic son, Owen. Then I read Andrew Solomon’s New Yorker article on Peter Lanza, whose son Adam killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School and had an autism spectrum disorder. Suskind and Solomon, reporting with enormous empathy on two vastly different individuals who shared similar diagnoses, help us see beyond the reductive thinking that labels tend to foster. Owen’s and Adam’s stories overlap in certain ways — both boys were difficult for the world to fathom, difficult for others to reach — but the likenesses are dwarfed by the ways their stories diverge.

I ask my children, teenagers now, what they remember about their time at The May. “Discovering I liked green beans,” says one. “Learning how to write my Rs forward instead of backward,” says another. “The way Gio always asked for more juice before he’d gotten any yet.”

diagnoses can be useful tools … but they can also limit our ability to perceive all the complexities and variations within the individual who exists beyond the label.

Er…do they remember anything specifically about autism?

“Sometimes a kid would get really upset and need extra help,” says one. “Yeah,” chimes another, “like me, the time I ran into a pole!” My daughter says, “Remember my friend Steven? I don’t know if he was on the spectrum or not.” She is pensive, frowning, then suddenly brightens: “I think it’s cool I still don’t know.”

I get what she means. Andrew Solomon talks about this: diagnoses can be useful tools, capable of delivering hope and relief. But they can also limit our ability to perceive all the complexities and variations within the individual who exists beyond the label. While we seek information, looking for ways to cure or break through, we do well to remember there’s value not only in getting answers, but also in the state of not knowing. In the case of my daughter and her friend, what they didn’t know constituted the opposite of a failure. In no small way, it’s what allowed them to connect.

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  • ST

    “While we seek information, looking for ways to cure or break through, we do well to remember there’s value not only in getting answers, but also in the state of not knowing.” In this age of information explosion the “state of not knowing” is probably what we need. Loved the article. Thank you, Leah Hager Cohen.

  • JM

    Loved this article. Both of my children attended preschool at Special Start, a Cambridge Public School preschool program that has both special needs students and students without special needs. The outstanding staff created a classroom children that were supportive, empathetic and awareness of diversity as being a ‘normal’ thing. This has made my children, now 15 and 23 the kind of people that appreciate differences. My daughter, who learned some sign language in one of the classes is now working on a Masters in Deaf Education at Boston University… and it all started in that preschool classroom.

    • JM

      Ack. Lots of typos… I wrote the post too quickly… hope folks can decipher it. Early exposure to any kind of diversity is important to a child’s development. There would be far less bullying in schools if all of our children could experience these classrooms.

  • Puzzled

    Great article. Currently I am agonizing about whether to send my 3 year old son who is on the spectrum in public school or not. Still haven’t seen a place that mekes me feel that it is the right one for him. At the same time I am going back and forth between him being in integrated setting or not.
    I was asking myself what the parents of the typical kids feel about them being with “not typical” kids. At the playground I got mixed responses from the parents.

    • NWBL

      Parents probably vary. But honestly as a parent of a typical child I felt that the teachers’ time and energy were unduly consumed by ‘not typical’ children. It also seemed that some of the not typical children were in over their heads in the environment–that depended on the child. I’m not trying to be hurtful, just honest. I hope that you find the right setting for your son, best of luck.

  • Elizabeth

    Really appreciated this perspective. The one line that has stuck with me is about referring to her children as “typicals”. Any statement that makes a description into a noun is on the same slippery slope of identity confusion that leads to the language of “retards”. Children are children first, and children on the autism spectrum or children with “typical” development second. Such a small line stands at odds with the otherwise beautifully articulated argument for embracing difference.

    • Maureen

      I get what you’re saying, Elizabeth, but we all use nouns all the time to define our world. And yes, descriptors like typical or delayed can be perceived as shorthand, imperfect words. The larger problem that you’re getting to, I think, is when the noun becomes a label with negativity attached. I found this article to be full of compassion, not comparison.

  • Barbara

    When The May Center opened its doors in Arlington, we lived just up the street. Flyers were put out to the neighborhood, inviting all to an open house. Even though we had not had children yet, my husband and I were curious, so we went. At the open house, we were shown around the cheerful and bright classrooms. Two had been set aside for ‘integrated’ pre-school classes, for kids with mild autism. The hope was for these kids one day to be mainstreamed into the public schools. We neighbors were told that the school was hoping to enroll ‘typical’ kids to balance the preschool classes. Questions were asked and reassurances given: No, our children would not ‘pick up’ some of the repetitive self-stimulating autism ‘traits’. Yes, our children would get all the socialization offered at a ‘typical’ preschool. The cost was a bargain as an incentive to recruit ‘typical’ kids. The school had the added advantage of perks unheard of at other preschools, like a weekly bus that took the kids to swimming lessons. We passed this information along to good friends who had just moved in nearby with two preschoolers. The dad, a social worker, was familiar with autism. He and his wife didn’t hesitate to enroll their 3 children, one after another, year after year. My husband and I followed in their footsteps as our kids came along. Here is what I remember: The May Center teachers in Arlington (Maureen Considine and others) were head and shoulders above their counterparts at other preschools that we checked out. This was their chosen field and they were passionate, committed and highly qualified to work at the May Center. The student/teacher ratios were something like 3 to 1 which meant plenty of attention and purposeful play. And I don’t use that term lightly. What looked like child’s play to a layman had a purpose. For example, I recall my daughter being one of four children sitting at a table absorbed in an art project. The children were all happily cutting and gluing. Only later did I realize that for the four kids, the teachers had purposefully put out only three pots of glue and three pairs of safety scissors. That meant that instead of reaching across and grabbing things, the kids were gently prompted by the teachers sitting with them to physically look at their classmate and ask, “Molly, please pass the glue”. No easy for these special kids, but the teachers would persist until all the children asked politely without prompting. This was beneficial not just for the autistic kids, but great for the typical kids as well. There were lots of lessons like that. Our kids and our friends’ kids all grew up to be thoughtful and empathetic. All went on to become good students at good colleges. I’d like to think the May Center had something to do with it!

    • Rainyd1217

      I worked at the May in Arlington for about four years (1990’s), and with Maureen. Thank you for that wonderful feedback. It was an amazing place to work, where I met some of the best and brightest in our field.

  • Stephanie

    Integration, diversity, appreciation, understanding are all so very important. And yes, it’s incredible that your children identify their friends by their names and memories, and not their diagnosis. As the mother of a son on the spectrum, however, I want to stress the importance of early diagnosis. Our son was not diagnosed until midway through first grade, in part because my spouse and I were not familiar with the markers of Asperger Syndrome / high functioning autism. Until each and every preschool and kindergarten classroom has the types of teachers and curricula you describe, early diagnosis is essential. It would have made a world of difference if our child had been in a program like the May School.

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