The Couch of Akward Encounters

It’s been a while since I’ve written and a lot has happened since I’ve logged on last, some of which I cannot share yet, but something interesting has happened recently that I must get off my chest.

First of all, Thatcher is doing okay and continues to get therapy and support both inside and outside of school. He’s currently using a lot of echolia (repeating what he hears on television or what others have said to him) and hand gestures to communicate.

However, that’s not the focus that I want to have for this blog post. I might have mentioned it before; I’m not sure, but I am a part time English instructor at a local university. My husband was recently offered a full time position at the same university (he’d already been working here for three years) as an online lecture with one classroom course. As a result, he was able to acquire his own office. He moved out of the office that we shared last semester into a much nicer office that he no longer has to share with anyone. It even has a couch that just came with the office. Naturally, I was jealous of his couch. I can see the appeal that it would have in attracting students who otherwise might not stop by a professors office, even for a mandatory scheduled conference that is part of their grade.

What I didn’t realize is how much a couch would attract people who were not my students. I mentioned to a custodian that I had been looking for a couch to put in my office and had even checked with the surplus department, but had no luck. She remembered that she’d seen one in an empty office just a few doors down from mine and helped me commandeer it. It was dusty, stained, and smelled funny, but I didn’t care. All of those issues could be fixed and now I had a couch. This semester I am sharing my office with a woman whom I went to graduate school with, so my slightly girly tastes work for her. I decided that I would clean off the dust, spray the couch with Lysol spray to make it smell better, and cover it with a purple blanket that my mother bought me from Mexico. Now the couch looks very lovely in the office I share with my friend. Above it, there is a wall outlet, which I have plugged a wax warmer into. It smells really nice and looks very comfortable, but my friend’s students were confused about whether or not they were permitted to sit on the couch, since it appears to be on my side of the office. To mend this issue, I put a laminated sign above it that reads, “All Students Welcome to Sit on Couch.” What I didn’t realize was that this would attract more than just my friend’s and my own students until the day of my first awkward encounter involving the couch.

I was teaching my 8:00 a.m. class and I’m not sure what I said that caused this student to be interested in me, but afterward, I was sitting in my office when a student that I didn’t recognize came to my door. I had recently substituted for my husband who had to have surgery (it was minor and he’s fine), so I wasn’t sure if he was one of my husband’s students or one of my friend’s students. He turned out to be neither. He happened to be a graduate student (I only teach undergraduates) in the engineering department at the university. He also mentioned that he’d had an internship at NASA. All of this was really fascinating, of course, but the encounter was awkward. The student kept looking in the mirror in my office to make sure that he was reacting appropriately. He appeared to be attempting to make eye contact, but couldn’t make his eyes really look at me. It was clear that this student wasn’t your typical student. And then he mentioned that he has Autism. I told him that I could tell and he asked how I was able to do so. I then told him about my Autistic son and gestured to the informational sheet that is hanging on my door. He really lacked confidence in his ability to appropriately communicate with me, but I was nice. I knew others had not been in the past. He made that perfectly clear. He showed me some of his work, which I couldn’t understand, of course and then he eventually left. I haven’t seen him since then.

Another awkward couch encounter happened today while I was sitting in my office eating lunch. This time it was another professor who I’ve seen around the office building and have said hello to, but hadn’t quite had a real conversation with until today. Perhaps the inviting couch lured him in; I’m not sure, though he didn’t sit on the couch. He just kept looking at it as we were speaking to each other. He, too, was curious about my son’s Autism and as a parent of an Autistic child and someone who is all for advocacy, I am always willing to share my experience with those who are curious. This particular colleague was really interested in the process of getting a diagnosis, so I explained to him that it’s a long, drawn out process that is, quite frankly, annoying to say the least.

First, you know that there is a problem. As a parent, you really want quick and easy answers, but there aren’t any when it comes to Autism. The first step is to rule out all other possibilities. In this process, my son went through a CAT scan to make sure that there was no pressure on his brain (he has a bit of a flat spot, but there was nothing to worry about), had his hearing tested, and went through genetic testing, which all happened before we were even able to see the developmental specialist face to face who diagnosed my son. Once we were there, there were still more steps to take. The doctor told me that he was looking for a list of about fifteen things that were true for my son and that my son had thirteen items on the list. I knew then that it was Autism, but was told by the doctor that there were still more steps to take. I had to film my son interacting with children that he did know and children that he didn’t know. I had to be asked about a thousand questions about my son’s odd behaviors and about his verbalization. My son and I saw this doctor three times in person and my son and his father saw him the first time through tele-care (health care provided through a Skype like program for rural areas of our state) before we had a diagnosis. But for me, this piece of paper that said my son was Autistic was a blessing because now I had the means to get my son the services that he needed.

This was all that I and my colleague discussed. So, what is it about this couch? I have to wonder. Perhaps it’s the purple blanket. Purple is a calming color. Or perhaps it’s the wax warmer in the outlet above it that provides a calming glow. Perhaps it’s the scent of Hawaiian flowers that draws these people to my office to sit on the couch, wonder about the couch, and chat. But really, it’s a great piece of furniture to have because it’s helping me spread Autism awareness and allowing me to let at least one Autistic person know that some people truly can be friends, even if the first encounter is strange and awkward.

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