Wednesday evenings, for more than a year now, Martin has taken piano lessons at a local music school. He started with the school’s music therapist. When the music therapist left for another job, Martin switched to Jason, one of the regular instructors. Jason admitted that he had no experience with autism or teaching special-needs kids, but he agreed to give it his best shot, and Martin seemed to like Jason.
I think Martin likes Jason because Jason is in his young 20s, plays many instruments, and will let Martin experiment with drums and guitars when his piano time is done. Jason is like the cool older brother in whose basement lair the neighborhood kids gather. I guess that effect is not lost on Martin.
Jason has seemed to take to Martin, too. The first few weeks, Jason met me after each lesson with pearls of wisdom like, “Martin has some trouble paying attention,” or, “Martin has a little trouble getting his fingers to cooperate.” (Hey, ya think?) That being said, it wasn’t long before Jason started meeting me with new ideas: “I just figured out that if I stick letter stickers on the keys, he’ll use his fingers individually,” and, “It’s about incentive. I told him he has to play two complete songs before he gets to bang on the drums.” I was giddy when, after several months with Martin, Jason said, “Guess what? I got another student with autism! He’s a lot like Martin, and now I feel like I know how to teach him.”
At 5:30 pm yesterday I had Martin waiting in the lobby when Jason emerged with his 5:00 student, an apparently typically developing boy. I’ll start by saying, because it’s relevant, that this boy’s mother is a talker. She had a series of questions prepared for Jason. He’s started playing French horn in the school band. Is that going to be good, or bad, for piano? Some people say you should wear earplugs when you’re playing in a band. Should he wear earplugs? Do they sell earplugs here? Are they child-sized earplugs? Do you wear earplugs? I’m going to meet with the band leader. What questions should I ask him? Should I have him call you? How many of your students play in school bands?
Jason responded patiently. Too patiently. As the minutes ticked by, 5:34, 5:37, 5:38, I calculated that Martin was missing almost a third of his half-hour lesson while Jason discussed the previous student.
Around 5:35 I remembered that the same scene has played out the last three times I’ve brought Martin to music school. Jason escorts the typically developing boy to the lobby, spends eight or 10 minutes with that boy’s mother, and then takes Martin for 20 or 22 minutes of lesson time.
The past three weeks it hasn’t bothered me, much. I thought, well, she’s a talker, and Jason doesn’t want to be rude. Yesterday, however, as I sat there listening to Jason and the mother, and not-so-discreetly checking my watch, and soothing Martin’s eagerness to get to the piano, I had another feeling. A terrible burden of a feeling:
My son is being slighted in favor of a typically developing child.
Feelings, perceptions, are hard to settle, aren’t they? I don’t know why I felt, so suddenly, that Martin’s disability had anything to do with Jason spending an extra 10 minutes on the previous student. Between 5:35 and 5:39 pm yesterday (I’m guesstimating), the following ideas came into my head:
- Martin is so difficult to teach that Jason is relieved to spend 20 minutes with him instead of 30;
- The typically developing boy’s mother sees Martin each week, figures that he has special needs, and therefore doesn’t reckon that usurping his lesson time is any problem;
- Even though we pay the same fees as every family, I am supposed to feel lucky that the music school accepts Martin as a student, and not expected to complain; and
- Because Martin doesn’t make progress at the same rate as other pupils, Jason sees his lessons as an amusing diversion, more than a paid undertaking from which Adrian and I hope for results.
Underlying all those thoughts was one thread: No typically developing child would be made to lose 10 minutes of his half-hour lesson, week after week.
I am not a racial minority. Although our family—Adrian, Martin, and I—is Latino, I am of European descent. I have light skin and blonde hair. My first language is English, and I have no accent, not really even any American regional accent. I have no evident disability or physical challenge. I have never known what it is like to navigate the world while facing unequal treatment based on what passers-by (think they) see in me.
My experience with Martin is not comparable to persistent, day-to-day discrimination. Still, yesterday, for whatever reason, I had some inkling of what it must feel like to suspect that people slight you based on perceptions they’ve formed without ever knowing what kind of person you are. Maybe what happened was no such slight. Maybe the typical boy’s mother is always rude. Maybe Jason doesn’t know how to escape her inquisition comfortably. Maybe it was just one of those things that could happen to anyone.
To be sure, having a child with autism makes me sensitive and suspicious. I’ve even accused Adrian. Honestly, I have. Before Martin was born, we agreed that we would raise him bilingual. I would speak only English with him, and Adrian would speak only Spanish. For the first couple years, we stuck by that. When Martin was diagnosed, when he passed 26 months with still no functional language, we consulted several speech therapists, and each told us the same thing: Hearing two languages is not Martin’s problem. His language is delayed for other reasons, and as his brain allows, the English and Spanish will develop at the same rate as if he were monolingual.
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Adrian stopped speaking Spanish with Martin. He switched to English, and only Samara, Martin’s nanny, keeps up the Spanish. In the darker times, I’ve told Adrian: “You stopped speaking Spanish with Martin because he has autism. You don’t think he’s worth the effort.” On one level, I know that’s not true. I know that Adrian has naturalized, that he’s North American now, that 99% of his life and business is conducted in English, that because he is a professional in an English-dominant field his mother tongue can be a burden, and that it is common for immigrants to assimilate by raising their children to speak English only. I know all that. But the mother of a child with autism has a chip on her shoulder. She just does.
Yesterday, it played out this way: When the typically developing boy’s mother finally shut up [ahem!] and left, and Jason turned to Martin, I said, “Getting a late start today? It’s almost 5:40 already.”
Jason checked his watch and said, “Oh, wow. I’m sorry.”
“It wouldn’t be a problem, but the same thing has happened four weeks now. He’s been missing eight or 10 minutes of every lesson.”
“I’m so sorry! That mom has a million questions every week.”
“I get that, but 5:30 till 6:00 is Martin’s lesson time.”
“Do you want me to keep him late today?”
“No, that’s not it. I just want him to get his whole lesson slot.”
“I’m so sorry. Won’t happen again. I promise.”
At that point, I exited, to walk to the drug store and pick up a few items while Martin had his lesson. In the parking lot, I walked past the other mother and her typically developing son. I considered confronting her, saying something like, “I know you have a lot of questions, but please respect the fact that your son’s allotted lesson time ends at 5:29. I want my son to have his full time.” By that point, however, I’d got myself worked up, too worked up. I feared the message would sound more like, “Listen, it is irrelevant that my son has autism! We pay the same fees you do, and my son is entitled to the same lesson time. I don’t know why you think your kid is so much better!” And so I kept my mouth shut, for which, with 24 hours’ hindsight, I am thankful.
What happened yesterday? Did the other mom figure my son is less worthy? Did Jason slight him? Has he been doing so for weeks?
I don’t know. I’ll see what happens next Wednesday, and I’ll go from there.