Imagine you're at the grocery store with a one, and almost-3-year-old. Your one-year-old is his usual rowdy, charming, and engaging self. He smiles, waves, and interacts with everyone and everything around him. You catch strangers smiling and waving at him, and he does the same back.
But, it's not the same for your 3-year-old. Instead of smiles and waves, you sense stares and whispers. People can see that she's far too old to still need the bib she's wearing to catch the excessive drool she likes to rub her fingers in and stare at. When she occasionally lets out a high pitched scream, you can feel other parents looking at you and wondering why you aren't doing more to correct her behavior.
Now your one-year-old is getting cranky and throwing things out of the cart. While you deal with that, the three-year-old starts wildly slamming her body against the seat in the cart. "I know," you whisper to her, pleading for her little body to calm itself, "We just need milk and then I promise we can go."
Now you're at the checkout and your body tenses as you hear the question you always dread, even though it should be so simple. "Hi there!" the woman scanning your 5 bags of frozen ravioli (that's all the 3-year-old will eat this week) says, while smiling back at your 1-year-old, "Your kids are so cute, how old are they?". You stare down at your items on the black conveyor belt and mumble "1, and almost 3." so you don't have to see the perplexed look on the cashier's face while she tries to figure out which is which, and why neither seem to be at a typical 3-year-old stage.
Thankfully the 3-year-old's body seems to be seeking less input, and her self-stimulating behaviors are now mostly limited to playing with her spit and staring at the magazine rack next to her. You breathe a sigh of relief when the cashier hands you your change without asking any more questions and you head out to your car.
This isn't my story. I mean, parts of it are, but my reality is that I have one child and he's the typically developing charmer. The other part of my reality is that for 45 hours a week, I am a caregiver for an almost 3-year-old girl with Autism and a rare genetic disorder called Schaaf Yang Syndrome. I've been in her life since before she was born, and I love her fiercely, even though she's not my own.
I can tell when she's having a "stim" day, I know when she's just avoiding her therapy rather than physically unable to participate, and I know that she is much more aware of her surroundings than she gets credit for. I know that both she and her parents are warriors, and I wonder every day if I would have the strength to be the kind of parents that they are.
Emma is beautiful and unique and her story deserves to be heard. I really hope that Emma Goes to School can help children learn to embrace their own unique differences, while showing the rest of the world that they deserve to be celebrated.