Henry is nine year’s old. Like most children his age, he loves to play. But he prefers to play by himself on the bars in the school playground. He flips on them, hangs upside down and catches the sunshine. He likes to walk and wander around the school. He stops in front of every classroom and intently watches the art display on the windows. He smiles a lot but does not like talking as much.

It was my day of volunteering in the third grade classroom. I had crossed paths with Henry while picking supplies from the office and making trips to drop them in the classroom. Amidst the cacophony of a school recess, I had noticed him pay attention to everything that other’s were not paying attention to.

Teaching art to third graders has proven to be a lot of fun, though it may come as a shock to art teachers from my early life and to those who know I do not have any formal training in art. I was told I could not draw a straight line to save my life. But here I was learning and exploring art forms where art is not about following a rule or a method, it is about following your heart. In schools where STEM is fast replacing music and arts, I find it almost therapeutic for the kids, the teacher and my own sanity that we still can make an art out of leaf imprints while listening to Beethoven and feel so joyful.

Still, I usually always begin the class with a little apprehension.

As I greeted the class that day, I noticed Henry sitting on the carpet along with the rest of the class, untangling a bare thread from the rug. I assumed he was a new student. He listened in for a good length and then stood up in between the discussion, took a tour of the classroom and made his way to the door. My eyes followed him. There was a teacher at the door and together they walked out. I felt curious. After settling in the class with paints and brushes, I enquired with the third grade class teacher about the boy who had come visiting.

She smiled. “That’s Henry. He comes to visit us often. He likes being in this classroom. It makes him happy. He is actually from the special needs class next door, “ said the teacher.

Henry never interrupts the class, never touches things on anyone’s desk or on the shelves and he never bothers anyone. He is much welcomed by the residents of the third grade classroom. He sometimes finds a vacant chair or a space on the carpet and makes himself comfortable. He loves to listen when a book is being read in the classroom. He rarely talks or makes eye contact but the third graders understand, they do not question him or force him to make conversations with them.

Henry’s interaction with the third graders is not limited to his visits. There is a program in this school where children from third grade and higher can volunteer to go and read to the special needs classroom. (The special needs class has children with autism) The reading session are one on one. Everyone in the third grade classroom has volunteered to read more than once. They choose a book to read from a collection of books and are designated a child that they will read to. The special needs teacher sits along during the reading session.

It may seem to be quite a difficult task for third graders. But their patience, understanding and enthusiasm, all are a pleasant surprise. They are informed. They are prepared.

A third grader shares with me what they have been told as part of the preparation. “They are not different, they are just like us. They have special and different needs than us. So we must treat them as we treat all our friends and peers.”

The third grader in my own home shares with me her experience. “While I was reading, he kept moving around the chair, rubbing the backrest of the chair constantly. At one point, he put his head inside the large gap in the chair’s backrest and looked upside down. The teacher told me to continue reading and explaining. And I did. At the end of the reading, the teacher gave him a reward for listening.”

“Do you think he was listening to you?”

“Yes. Just because he did not talk or ask questions, it does not mean he was not listening or he did not understand the story. He even got a listening token (a reward) from his teacher.”

April is autism awareness month. All through this month I have been reading stories from parents and special-education teachers about the challenges, difficulties and sometimes the beautiful side of autism. These are heart-wrenching stories of undying sprit of the caregivers and teachers and their everyday struggles. In sharp contrast, there is an abundance of copy-paste social media messages that others share in hope of spreading awareness. It is rather time to pause and think hard if that is really helping. Unless you are closely involved in any capacity, you are very distant from knowing what you really need to be aware of.

I look at the third graders and marvel at how much they know and how easily they embrace something that many adults would be hesitant about. Nothing teaches you more than a practical life lesson. We celebrate our schools for the common core and STEM education, chess tournaments and math / science Olympiads but rarely for providing a lesson and an opportunity of inclusion.

Henry loves being in the third grade classroom. On days, when Henry is appreciated by his teacher for doing a good job and she asks him what he would like for a reward.

He says, “Room 25,” indicating he wants to visit the third grade classroom next door. That is what he looks forward to. Being somewhere where he knows that there are 28 little people and a very loving teacher awaiting to make him part of their life.

Picture And Story By : Piya Mukherjee Kalra