Friday, October 17, 2014

The Importance of Role Models for Socially Different Kids

The Importance of Positive Role Models for Socially Different Kids

About two months ago, I started going to a local synagogue on a regular basis to participate in services. I did so mostly out of a desire to find some sort of community in a life where I felt more than a little adrift. I am still working on the religious aspect of it, but in the meantime, I found something I had never expected to find while at this synagogue. I found a new way to look at my past.

I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by problems with social interaction and sensory processing issues, when I was 21. I had been a straight A student in my suburban high school, but had always struggled socially. I didn't make my first friend until I was 16. My desperate pleas for answers as to why I was so different fell on deaf ears when I was in school. There were no role models for difference in my high school. Doing well academically was prized above all else, and if you got good grades, then no one would ever consider that you would need any other kind of help in any other area of your life. Especially if you didn't have behavior problems. Anxiety apparently was not considered a problem worthy of intervention.  

I didn't talk like the other kids. I didn't have the same interests. I didn't dress the same way. I could see so clearly that I was different. Being different in itself is not a disability. Of course not. But there was no one around to model difference in a healthy way and tell me that. There were no examples of people being different and proud. We were homogenous, racially, religiously, and in every other way possible. You didn't see people with disabilities, or even people of other races or backgrounds. I concluded something must be very wrong with me, because no one could ever put words or labels to my experience.  

I sought solace on the Internet. Since I didn't have the language I have now - Asperger's and autism - to use to find like-minded people, I hung out in mental health and depression communities. While the support was better than nothing, it was far from the most appropriate and healthy role models for a 13 year old kid to have. I struggled with thoughts of self-harm for many years after, because it was the only coping method I could find offered to me in the communities that I was a part of. No other communities were accessible to me. I had no extracurricular activities, no mentors, no people of any kind that could point to me ways of actually enjoying the world, so I ended up spending all my time with people whose only goal was to survive it.  

Now, nearly ten years into researching and participating in a wide variety of autism and Asperger's communities both online and off, I am so grateful for the language to describe who I am. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet people like me in several different cities, and to see people living happily with differences of all kinds. I am still blown away when I see representations of myself in other people, because for so long I didn't think any one else like me existed. This simple language and knowledge that there are others like me has given me the ability to live my life with a level of confidence and pride that simply would not have been possible before.

I see such a difference in kids who were raised knowing about their autism from an early age, who had supportive parents and positive role models. They're aware that they're different, but they seem nonplussed about it. They don't seem as likely to fall prey to the depression that comes from not knowing what's wrong with you. They understand and appreciate their strengths, and have a dazzling array of resources to choose from to combat their weaknesses. They understand that slow and steady wins the race. They're comfortable with who they are.

At the synagogue I've been going to, I've met probably close to a dozen people from my hometown, which is just far away enough and un-Jewish enough for that to seem shocking every time it happens. These people tell me stories of pulling their kids out of the high school there because they feel that there are not enough resources and role models for their socially awkward, different kids. I am learning that my story is not unique. It makes me wonder if there is anything I personally can do to prevent my fate from happening to a new generation of quirky but wonderful kids whose only fault was to be born a little different in a society that doesn't know how to deal with difference. I want these kids to know that there are other people like them, whatever their difference may be. I want them to know that there is more to life than getting A's on a test. I want them to know what it feels like to be valued for who they are. Whether it be with more extracurricular groups, or assemblies with speakers who have some sort of difference,  whether it be reading assignments or volunteer opportunities or what have you, our students need to be exposed to other ways of living and experiencing the world. You don't always know when someone is desperately searching for a role model for a difference that isn't always apparent to you. Everyone should have the opportunity to feel good about themselves. Book learning can be picked up at any time in one's life, but the groundwork for positive self-esteem and self-confidence is something that is awfully hard to recover if not built from an early age. Schools need to work at least as hard at creating emotionally safe environments for kids to grow in as they do at teaching academics, if they want all of that academic knowledge to be used for something. What good is factual knowledge in a mind that has been broken emotionally? There is hope with exposure to different role models.  

No comments:

Post a Comment