Thank you to Matt FritzMiller for sharing this story of his own journey of “autism awareness.” We hope it inspires you to seek out opportunities for relationship with someone with ASD.
When I first started teaching 12 years ago I had no idea what autism was. Coming from a business/management background, words like autism, IEP, and Asperger’s were foreign to me. So when I was told that I would have a 7th grade student who shared my name and had autism, I thought, “Cool. Another me.” I had no idea what it would be like to be a teacher for Matt. I knew that his parents were apprehensive about how he would adjust to the new school, and we were all warned that Matt would sometimes need alone time. I was also told that Matt loved to run. He sounded enough like me that I started wondering if we were the same person.
When I met Matt, he was a lot like any other 12-year-old student I had ever worked with. He made goofy jokes that often made me laugh. He asked questions that challenged me. He gave answers that were so far from what I was looking for that I didn’t know how to respond. But I also quickly recognized his obstacles. He had a really difficult time with any small changes to routine. If something did not go as he had planned, he would quickly reach the point of a panic attack. He also had moments when he started to withdraw. I recognized these as times that he needed to be alone. Sometimes I could sense these times coming on by the way he started rocking back and forth. And sometimes I could tell that he was ready for a break by the way he stared out the window.
Matt and I really bonded on the cross country team. He was a 7th grade superstar, and I was the dorky first year coach who had no real idea what he was doing. Matt would run his hardest, get first place in a race, rest for about thirty seconds, and then go play on the playground if one was nearby. He would blurt out comments that were sometimes taken the wrong way, like the time he got a first place medal from a school, took it in his hand, and shouted out, “But it’s so small!” Or the time we had a race on an Indian reservation and Matt, excited about our new red uniforms, shouted continuously, as an encouragement to his teammates, “We’re red and we’re proud!” You see, Matt had an innocence about him that caused him to see things for what they were, without understanding the offense that others could take.
Matt and I spent six years at our school together in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. I got to watch Matt come out of his shell and develop into a confident young man. He never lost that candidness that was so endearing. He learned how to put off needed alone time in order to complete tasks and to handle surprises more calmly. Matt went on to graduate from college.
Learning how to help Matt through his struggles and watching him grow and stretch himself was a great privilege. He brought me joy on the days when I felt frustrated or stressed. In the beginning of seventh grade, I thought I had to “deal with” Matt because of autism. But it wasn’t long before I just saw Matt as a person…a really cool guy.
Matt is the Director of Student Affairs at BASIS Chandler. He enjoys writing about his many hobbies and his adventures in fatherhood at www.renaissance-dad.comImage courtesy of Meredith Bell/ Flickr.com