“I got the award because I speak so beautifully”
– Mei, 6 years old.
Recently, Mei’s school presented awards to exceptional students in each grade for various scholastic excellence. Out of the 60 first graders, Mei received the award for Excellence in Reading and Speaking Expressively. This coming from a girl who was barely verbal 3 years ago. A girl whom everyone said had no hope, no future, no chance of a normal life. She proved them wrong.
*Mei and her little sister Min
When Mei started first grade recently, I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to cope in the private international school. Enrolling Mei in the Big School as I dubbed it, was the culmination of years of extraodinary work. Out of all of us, Mei worked the hardest and sacrificed the most. Would the Big School be the ultimate test of Mei’s typicalisation and normalisation?
After a few years of ABA therapy, Mei gradually transitioned to mainstream kindergarten. She went through three kindergartens until she found her groove in the last kindy. No aide, no special accommodations, no IEPs. But that was in a little kindy, not this Big School with its’ academically demanding British curriculum. First graders also seemed terribly sophisticated to me, will her social skills measure up? Will she make friends? Will she be happy?
I chose the Big School for its’ many excellent qualities. However, it is a strictly mainstream school and does not accept children with special needs or certain diagnoses. I omitted filling in the ‘Please tick if your child has the following diagnosis or disorder’ section, autism being one of them. I submitted the application and Mei was asked to sit for the entrance exam. If there was any suspicion of a behavioral disorder or developmental delay, the examiners would disqualify the child. Mei passed with flying colors.
Disclosure has its benefits, but for now I chose not to disclose. Not because I wanted to hide Mei’s diagnosis or her past. Rather, to protect her from the prejudice that arises from an autism diagnosis. Even though I have a piece of paper stating that Mei no longer has autism, she still encountered discrimination and unfair treatment in the past. One particular kindergarten took great delight in pointing out Mei’s deficits and faults, rather than focusing on her strengths and abilities, of which there are many. It was incredibly unfair of them to judge her for her previous diagnosis rather than for who she is now.
I can’t help but worry; would the teacher view Mei’s quirkiness as a red flag? Would the other students notice her difference? Would I accidentally give away the secret in front of a parent or teacher? Once, my husband lost his car keys at school. A parent found it and started waving it around asking whose key it was. When I spotted the giant autism ribbon keychain, I practically snatched it out of the mother’s hand, paranoid in case someone recognized the symbol.
I dread the day the Big School finds out about Mei’s past. I know the truth will catch up with us one day. But I will deal with it when the time comes. After all, everyone told us we couldn’t do it. We were told autism is a lifelong disorder. There was no hope, no recovery. Doctors sneered at me when I brought up the topic of biomedical intervention. The only things I was told I should do was medicate my daughter up to her eyeballs and institutionalize her. There were many things we were told we shouldn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t do.
At the parent-teacher conference, Mei’s teachers only had glowing reports about her. She did well in all her lessons, joined in all the activities and genuinely enjoys school. Mei has lots of friends and even has a best friend.
To my comrade in arms, the fierce mamas and gladiator dads, keep on fighting. May 2012 bring hope, healing and recovery.