TPGA is observing Autism Acceptance Month by featuring accounts from autistic people about the differences accommodations (or lack thereof)
make in their lives. Today’s story is from Mel Baggs,
about the assumption that all kids should be able to work and play in groups — and that kids who can’t cope with group scenarios are just being difficult.

Mel Baggs

I see all these amazing programs for children

Like really, really cool stuff, stuff that looks fun and educational
at the same time, stuff that looks far more educational and far more
rewarding than the school system, etc.

I see them in documentaries, in videos online, in articles, etc.

But then I’m always stopped short by something.

Photo © Norton Gusky. Creative Commons License.
[image: Schoolchildren of various races talking while gathered around a table.]

Unless something fundamental changed about children between then and
now. And in how children are treated, both by each other and by the
adults who do programs like that.

I would always be the child that they don’t show. Because I would be
angry and irritated at best, screaming and crying at worst, and
somewhere in between trying to negotiate incredibly unpleasant social
situations without getting blamed for it. But always getting blamed for
it, because everyone always knew I was That Kid, the one who was always
getting into it with other kids in situations like this. And the fact
that it was usually other kids instigating the situation didn’t take
away from the fact that I was perceived as the cause because I was
always right there in the middle of the problem. And because that’s
just how adults think about the one kid who seems to keep fucking up
their plans for the day, whose expressions of distress are neither cute
nor conveniently timed. And because as often as not, when the teachers
were kids they were probably the ones singling out kids like me to pick

(This is how one of the worst bullies I ever encountered got an
award for “good citizenship,” not once but multiple times, whereas my
citizenship grade was almost always my lowest grade.)

And it never occurred to anyone that maybe part of the problem was
forcing me to take part in “amazing learning experiences” in large
groups of kids who were hostile to my very existence. That maybe
smaller groups, with kids who were not hostile, in environments that
were quieter, would work better. Or even having me and some other kids
work alone. Rather than assuming that all kids can and should be able
to automatically work together in groups, and that any problems that
occurred were the fault of whatever kid had trouble fitting in.

Because as it is, I feel horribly cynical sometimes.

Because I look at videos of kids having these amazing experiences and seeming so happy.

And I wonder which kids are not being filmed.

And I wonder if the model students in these scenarios, the ones who
get filmed the most, I wonder how many of them are picking on the kids
who aren’t fitting in so well.

And I hate that my experiences make me ask these questions.

And I hate feeling cheated out of experiences like these because of what my experiences actually were as a child.

The one thing that I vowed as a child, that I would never forget when
I grew up, was that childhood was not an idyllic peaceful carefree
period of time, the way adults always said it was.

You know, I know that things along the lines of “It Gets Better” have
drawn a lot of criticism for supposedly telling kids that things don’t
have to get better now because they’ll be better when they grow up.
Which is not, I think, necessarily what such things are telling kids,
mind you. But everyone acts like they automatically mean that.

At any rate, I know that criticism of it and I’ve heard that
criticism of it. But as a kid I really fucking needed to hear that it
would genuinely get better for me, at some point in the future. Because
thinking it could not possibly get better left me feeling completely
hopeless. And being completely hopeless is not a good way to live. I
don’t know what kind of life other people lived that they think that
it’s better to say nothing at all to kids going through hard times, than
to tell them it will get better in the future. Like, entire chunks of
the worst parts of my life would literally never have happened if
someone could have shown me certain things about how the adult world
could work for disabled people, just as one example.

So like, the fact that things will potentially get better in the
future is not enough. But it’s better than saying nothing at all, holy
crap. And it’s not like saying things will get better in the future is
incompatible with making things better now. (Besides the fact that the
knowledge things could get better already helps things get better now.
Not enough, but it does help.)

Anyway, I wish a lot of these opportunities that are out there for
kids, were out there for adults as well. Especially for those of us who
couldn’t happily take part in such things – or couldn’t take part in
them at all – as children. And I wish that I wasn’t always looking for
the one kid they don’t want to show too closely, or at all. Because I
can’t imagine that all these groups of kids are all uniformly happy and
enthusiastic when taking part in these programs for kids.

And like… I really, really would have benefited from hands-on types
of learning opportunities, but whenever those opportunities were
presented, they were presented in ways that were inaccessible to me,
mostly because of the social expectations that went along with them. So
people got convinced that it was a learning style thing, sometimes,
when it wasn’t at all. It was a social situation thing.

I just hate looking at those things, imagining how wonderful it would
be to take part in them, and then suddenly remembering what it really
felt like to take part in that — always being on the verge of crying,
always being terrified or enraged or both, always being overloaded, and
always being in either physical or emotional pain. And always being the
one at fault for all of it somehow.


Republished with the author’s permission.