The hunt continues to find Khalid a suitable English-speaking school that is autism-friendly, uses sound behavior reinforcement principles (rather than education through intimidation) and doesn’t cost an arm, a leg, two kidneys and your left earlobe. I’ve been to three schools just today, dragging Khalid and Joy along for the ride and leaving a trail of bemused registrars in our wake.
“Does he know his colors?’
“Can he recognize letters?”
“Khalid, what does this bag say?”
“Best Salted Cashews.”
People are generally confused by Khalid. When we go into visually exciting new places, like schools, his attention is all over the place taking in the new surroundings, and the outsider’s first assumption is that the lights are on but no one’s home. He has to read every written word on every wall and visually digest every shape lovingly cut and unsteadily decorated in glitter glue. The various registrars and social workers who try to probe him ask him questions without first getting his attention, and as the seconds tick by in silence, I can see exasperation come over their faces as they assume I am exaggerating Khalid’s cognitive abilities just to get him into school.
“So Khalid, how are you?”
“Big, big giant school.”
(The social worker looks amused)
“Stairs going up.”
(The school has an impressive staircase leading from the reception to the second floor.)
“Do you have any friends?”
(I want to kick her for asking this)
(Now she looks confused.)
I earnestly explain that he’s telling her about his friends- that they’re boys.
“And girls.” Khalid adds after another second. “And kids.”
“Khalid,” I say nervously, “Can you tell me about your friend Omar?”
“He’s not here.”
“Omar transferred from the school,” I explain again. “None of the children in his current school speak English, so he hasn’t made any new friends yet.”
“Khalid,” the social worker continues, “What shape is this?”
Khalid looks down at the iPad that she’s pointing to. He’s been using it to play Cut the Rope, and also, to search for walk-throughs on YouTube when he’s stuck on a certain level.
“Very good!” the social worker says, genuinely surprised. “And this?”
Khalid looks to the coffee table.
“It’s a circle. Like the sun.” He uses his finger to squiggle, in the air, what he means to be the rays of the sun. The he goes back to his own world, reading the walls. Do not enter. Push. Pull. In case of fire. I remember- once we were driving back home from Ajman, and the sun was setting in an electric orange ball to the west of Emirates Road.
“Look Khalid, Iman- the sun is going down! SubhanAllah, it’s so big and round!”
Iman says: “Ooooh!” Khalid says: “Sun is a planet?”
Owlie and I took the kids to the children’s museum once, where watched a half an hour presentation on the solar system- once. This was before Musfira was born, and she’s almost four months old now.
“Actually, the sun is a star.”
“Not a planet?”
“No, because planets don’t give off light. The sun is a star, I think.”
“Not a star, planet.”
In Khalid’s big-city world view, stars are shapes with five points that exist primarily to be colored yellow. Dubai has way too much light pollution to see anything other than the moon and the air traffic. I can see his point of view. So I offer a compromise.
“Ok Khalid, maybe it’s a little bit like both.”
The social worker says she’ll get back to us.
We pack up and drive off to the next school. The principal, who I met last Thursday to appeal for Khalid’s admission, is out sick.
“I’ll leave a message please,” I say to the front-desk secretary. As I’m scribbling what I hope is a friendly, optimistic, and not too desperate-sounding request for a call back, Khalid is taking in the student-made exhibits on traffic safety week. I borrow the receptionist’s stapler and use it to make sure my business card makes it along with the message. Khalid’s last school admitted him on the strength of my position in exchange for training their KG department, and I’m willing to make whatever sort of bargains I have to and pull whatever strings I can reach to get him into a school. I’ve spent hours camped outside of school offices waiting to hound, guilt, impress, and emotionally blackmail whoever I need to in order to get Khalid a fair chance. I think I’m getting used to it now. I think I need to order more business cards.
“Khalid, it’s time to go now.”
“I need to fix.”
He’s trying to put the hat back onto the lego victim of a car crash who’s laying on lego street waiting for the lego ambulance to come to his aid.
“It’s alright, I think that’s how they meant the exhibit to look.”
“I like legos.”
Iman goes to school every day and Khalid gets left behind, asking me when we’re going to pick her back up. Iman’s teacher is delighted that she’s the youngest child in the class and the only one who can already write her own name. Khalid’s teacher, on the other hand, was openly angry about having to deal with “these kinds of children” when she already has twenty six other children in class she’s supposed to be teaching instead. The atmosphere on the first day of teacher training for that school was bordering on mutinous, and what was intended to be a workshop on using reinforcement within the framework of ABA quickly deteriorated into an angry argument between the pro-inclusion principal and Khalid’s anti-inclusion (and openly anti-Khalid) teacher. She walked out of the workshop, returned to argue with the principal in Arabic, and then walked out again.
To her credit, she did come on the second day and exhibited much less eye-rolling. Today was the third day, and she looked almost civil. Of course, she has no reason to be mad anymore, because Khalid is no longer attending her class.
He’s been home from school for three days now. He owns uniforms from two different schools, and when Iman came home in her PE uniform yesterday, Khalid walked silently to his bedroom and came back dressed in his. He’s honest to a fault, and so sensitive to the world around him but so limited in expressing how much it affects him. I look at him, with his enormous beautiful eyes and his profoundly hidden profound intelligence, and my heart aches.
“You like legos my Jaan?”
“Yeah. I like it.”
He smiles at me.
“Then I think it’s time to buy you some.”