It had never been done before.
My first impulse was to say no.
We could have said no. It would have made sense to turn down the invitation to compete. He was the first child in their elementary school who’d ever attended “regular” education classes full time, with no assistance or pull out time, and without a one on one aide. Sometimes, I am not sure they knew what to do with him since shooing us back into special ed certainly hadn’t worked. And, I will honestly say, we were all equally confused when he, the only autistic child in regular ed, qualified for the spelling bee.
It was a little strange for our family and a bit overwhelming for everyone involved.
Add to our quandary that we are not good at competing. It’s part of our anxiety thing. We have anxieties along with the autism. We can’t do raffles, we don’t do sports well because losing sends us into a melt down. Actually being a goalie and missing a ball puts us right down in the grass, face planted and screams flying, as though we were three years old. We are not three years old and a tantrum after you are three is just ugly. Every year after three, the ugly of the meltdown gets magnified as the child gets bigger. It’s not pretty for a fifth grader AT ALL so although we are good at many things, competition just isn’t one of them.
When he came home and he told me that he’d earned a spot in the spelling bee I was not surprised. He is a tremendous speller. There are many things we are not good at but we ARE a good speller. Crazy good. He was nonchalant about his victory even though only two kids per class in the fourth and fifth grade are able to qualify for the competition. Like I said, I wasn’t surprised because spelling is one of his strengths but then, just as quickly as I’d smiled, I frowned. Oh NO. It’s nice to be invited but we can’t do that. I am sure the teachers did not expect him to be one of the top spellers in class. I am sure they were nervous. My thoughts began to jumble up in my head. I am worried for the teachers, worried for him, worried for me. It might be ugly, we might fall apart, we might have a stomping, crying melt down on stage…were some of the thoughts I was being bombarded with.
I will be honest. Mom had a bit of a panic attack and I began to dissect the pros and cons of participating in a spelling bee. The competition would be fierce. His sister, even with her sky rocketing IQ, didn’t make it past the third round. Even with her intellect, it was tough and the disappointment was pretty intense a few years prior. Being the mom I am, I try to weigh the benefit to the burden. This wasn’t an easy one so I went to speak to the principal.
As I am having my own fretting party trying to play out every scenario as to how I would minimize any damage…it occurs to me…mom is the one who needs to calm down and embrace the fearlessness. The pic I posted above, “Keep Calm and Be Fearless,” is more for mom than it is for my boy. Because the truth of the matter is the boy is unmoved by it all. He truly is calm and unmoved. It’s just a spelling bee. Not a big deal at all to him. He, being on the spectrum, is less aware of all the social expectations that go along with it. He is just a boy. They say he is the one that is socially impaired but it is that same “so called” social impairment that lets him simply BE. He is not stressing. It’s just a day at school. No worries, no cares.
When I ask him how he feels about competing, he simply answers, “Yeah, sure, why not?”
Yeah, mom has done this…made it way more complicated than it needed to be. We WILL compete, we will try and we will do our best. We talk about what happened to his sister and how he might get out too and his response to me is, “Yeah, okay.”
And so we go. Off to compete in the spelling bee that no autistic child has ever competed in and we all kind of shake our heads as we start to do what the “experts” said would never be done. The autistic kid just being a kid, just being a student, just walking up on stage to take his seat as a contestant. It’s so normal and yet it’s wildly not.
If you were there, you might have wondered about him. Yeah, we stuck out a little. I forgot to cut the tag out of his shirt. That one hit me like a ton of bricks. The tag on his shirt that he tugged at made me cringe and wonder, “How could I have forgotten the tag?” My first instinct was to go home and get another shirt for him to change into but I took a deep breath and let that thought pass. Because, even as he reached his hands behind his neck to find the tag and then to finger the tag as he spelled, we were still just another quirky kid at the spelling bee.
That day my boy went on to shock not only his mom but also the rest of school including his classmates, teacher and principal because he did not foul out in the third round like his sister had. This boy, the boy who wasn’t ever supposed to be anything other than a special ed student, held on until the very last round of the spelling bee. He went on so long in “spell-outs” as they tried to determine third place that, after two hours of spelling bee rounds, they had to “call” the Bee and call for a continuance the next day so they could determine third place. In a thirty minute spell off the next morning between he and another boy, my boy took fourth place in the Spelling Bee. The LONGEST spelling bee the school had experienced. After thirty minutes of back and forth, he got out. My boy got out on the word “receive” because he, like most of us, mixed up the order of the ‘i’ and the ‘e’.
My boy walked away with a fourth place trophy that is not only an accolade for his academic achievement but it is more aptly represented as a hallmark to what happens when you step up to life fearlessly and do not let yourself be hampered and limited by the expectations that someone else lowers to accommodate you. I try never to underestimate the boy and I try to keep my own fears calmed so that I can better allow him to live as the fearless young man that he trying to be….if all the adults would simply step out of his way.