First Day of Kindergarten, 2007 (Image Courtesy of Lamoureux Family)
By Justin Lamoureux
In my last article, I underscored a few shortcomings of Autism Awareness Month in its most popular form. I also explained why I (as an autistic person) feel a certain responsibility to discuss my own experiences publicly. Now, I’m going to tell you how my story began.
Autism first became a part of my life when I was five years old.
Before then, my parents never had any reason to believe that something wasn’t right. But when I started kindergarten, it didn’t take long for my teacher to express concerns about my behavior in the classroom. I was melting down almost every day: When our class played a game and I lost; when there was some kind of group activity and I didn’t get paired with the one person I ever wanted to be with; when my teacher gave the last few Cheez-Its (my favorite thing to munch on) to someone else at snacktime. It wasn’t just tantrums, though: One time, I attempted to kiss a female classmate. On a different occasion, I pulled my pants down in front of the entire class while waiting my turn for the bathroom.
Obviously, I didn’t see a problem with how I acted. I was just doing what seemed rational—I didn’t care that no one else was behaving that way. But to the adults, red flags just kept popping up… to the point where my school counselor believed that a comprehensive evaluation was in order. In October 2007, we visited a local child psychologist to complete this step. In a matter of weeks, we received a diagnosis.
I’d like to provide some clarity before going any further: Officially, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
This condition is very similar to autism. In fact, the many overlapping characteristics make effectively differentiating between the two exceedingly difficult. For that reason, the DSM-5 stopped recognizing Aspergers as an official diagnosis in 2013. Consequently, Aspergers was folded into the same (broad) category as autism spectrum disorder: In other words, anyone previously diagnosed with Aspergers (myself included) is now considered to have autism.
The results of my evaluation meant I could be officially enrolled in my school’s special education program. I cannot recall exactly what I worked on with every teacher. But here’s what I do remember: They went above and beyond to take good care of me.
When something caused me anxiety, my special education teacher typed and printed a story (complete with pictures) to help explain how I should deal with it. If our school psychologist knew that a fire drill was coming up, she would quietly whisk me away to her office, where the alarm wasn’t nearly as loud. Even the Director of Pupil and Personnel Services (who oversaw special education programs at five different schools) knew me by name. These people genuinely loved me and wanted me to succeed. For a child with special needs, this can make a world of a difference… it certainly did for me.
That didn’t mean everything went smoothly, though.
I continued to struggle with controlling my emotions throughout elementary school. It never took much before I flew off the handle. If I didn’t get a turn on the swing set during recess… watch out! When I had trouble with an assignment in class, some minor confusion would quickly snowball into an all-consuming outburst. If we’ve met in the last couple of years, trust me: You wouldn’t recognize the person I was back then.
There’s one specific episode that remains permanently etched in my memory. It happened the spring after I had been diagnosed with autism: My kindergarten class was returning from a field trip to the local grocery store, on which my mom had been a chaperone. That morning, I somehow convinced myself that when our field trip wrapped up, Mom would be taking me home. Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased to learn the opposite was true.
I made quite the scene after that. After my mom slipped out of the classroom, I carried on—kicking and screaming with every ounce of strength in my little body—for the next two hours. My teacher and special education team tried everything, but I would not calm down. I’d like to mention this all played out in front of fifteen classmates and several unrelated parents.
By the time my dad came to pick me up that afternoon, my teacher was holding me in his arms. I had just spent ten minutes lying down in the parking lot, refusing to move. The adults in my life were beyond exhausted at this point… I’m sure you can understand why.
For my parents, this incident was nothing short of traumatic. When my mom did leave the school, she sat in her car and cried for half an hour. All she wanted was a child who could behave “like the other kids.” Dad was upset, too—but his feelings of anguish were rooted in concerns that took his mind far beyond the moment. He saw the writing on the wall: For a child who could barely survive a day of kindergarten without some kind of crisis, there was no telling what the future might bring.
For the next decade or so, I worked hard.
And I mean really hard—I poured my heart and soul into learning to live with my disability. Through weekly attendance at social skills groups, I figured out how to interact with people in a normal and acceptable manner. With the help of countless teachers, I managed to thrive in the classroom despite academic obstacles.
That wasn’t always easy, either. When I was in second grade, I was identified as having a nonverbal learning disability. In addition to negatively impacting my spatial and fine motor skills, this could make math exceedingly difficult as it caused me to struggle at recognizing patterns and concepts. In many respects, this kind of diagnosis could be just as debilitating as autism: Learning how to solve complex math problems and equations was no easier than making it through a day of school without some kind of meltdown.
Needless to say, I had a steep hill to climb. But I never gave up—if something didn’t work the first time, I tried again with a different approach. And I always kept trying until I got where I wanted to be.
That kind of attitude really paid off in the long run.