Fight or flight! Fight or flight! I think Henry was trying to figure out how to free himself, as any one of us would if we were being restrained. The internal impulse was the same in my four-year-old son as it is in an adult. He fought because he felt trapped, actually was trapped—held by both wrists, carried over the shoulder of a teacher. The transition from the playground to the classroom was difficult. The teachers tried all sorts of ways to get him to join the line of other students…bribery, privileges, treats.
When those didn’t work, they used force.
Before the bell rang for the kids to line up, Henry’s teacher walked over to him, grabbed his wrists and held him tight to her so he couldn’t run away, and then called the class in off the playground. Henry did all he could to get free: wiggled, dropped his body to the ground, cried and screamed.
A second teacher approached, put Henry over her shoulder and carried him into the building. I witnessed this once from the parking lot, crying. Day after day this was Henry’s experience. Fight or flight! Fight or flight!
Henry struggled with transitions; particularly, changes between tasks and locations. Come to find out, Henry struggled with other preschool “social norms,” too. He refused to sing or dance on the color mat and wiggled during storytime. He was disruptive at lunch and refused to color. The director told me Henry was an enigma, that when she asked him to say the alphabet, he wouldn’t acknowledge her; it wasn’t until he was at the sink washing his hands that she heard him singing his ABCs on his own—in his own time.
Henry had already known his letters for a year and a half before preschool.
Different is a word most parents don’t want to hear regarding their child. As Henry’s mom, I want to reach his heart, to try and understand him, and to teach him to have good character. I didn’t think of Henry as different until preschool, the place where he learned about sharing, teamwork, scissor skills (not a skill I was going to teach at home) and how to be social. But it’s difficult to see difference until we take a step back.
Our parent conference was scheduled on a Wednesday evening. That morning, Henry couldn’t handle the stress of the playground anymore. Fight or flight! On that Wednesday, because he couldn’t choose flight, he chose to fight. As the school’s director approached to help get him inside, he picked up a rock and threw it at her. “We just don’t have the staff here to help him,” the director said to us. “We can’t have him back.”
My first clear memory of Henry’s “difference” was the way he built bridges with blocks. From the front door, through the living room, into the kitchen, Henry laid down his translucent window blocks on the floor, circles first—red, then green, then blue—triangles next—red, then green, then blue—then rectangles—red, then green, then blue. The iridescent trail was whimsical, a brilliant exhibition of the blueprint in Henry’s mind. Henry was only two-years-old the first time he did this.
A few months later, Henry’s architectural masterpieces became three-dimensional; the bridges became towers that stretched high into the world of imagination where ships floated on air and teddy bears swam in the sea. But the patterns remained, only reversed. First the rectangles, then the triangles, then the circles, because “it would fall down,” he said, if the circles were on the bottom. And colored magnetic squares cascaded off the coffee table. Henry smiled as the last one hung on for a brief second before causing the row, heavy with weight, to break and fall. “It was too heavy!” he exclaimed, jumping up and down, happy with the results of the experiment. This is one of my favorite memories of Henry at the age of three.
The conditions under which these wonderful displays of Henry’s mind worked were not without challenges. An interruption for lunch, a suspension of play, set off a wild encounter with a little boy’s stubborn will. Fits of frenzy seemed out of the blue and over the top. Henry could not release his mind from his activity; he could not reenter the “real world” after being fully enchanted by the one he was creating.
This behavior was seen by some as “disobedience,” “a strong will,” or perhaps signs of autism as the preschool speculated. Between teachers and friends, libraries and Google, many methods were suggested to train Henry to transition more easily. I felt lost and overwhelmed as a mother, isolated and anxious about how we would function as a family with a child that needed more specialized help. I began to research and read books on the symptoms of behavioral disorders, books on out-of-the-box-thinkers and books, honestly, on how to raise boys.