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I mentioned earlier that one of the less-direct suggestions that I had about possibly being autistic was at my elementary school in September 2019, when my class president (Class of 1990) indicated that our entire class could have been autistic. Now at some point (possibly soon) she'll read this, and she may fill me in on her thoughts, but before that happens, I want to take some time now 20:41 25-Apr-22 and talk about why, even without looking at my classmates' behaviors, that could have been the case.

Excellence Is Elementary

The marketing department at The Avery Coonley School used that as a slogan for a time; perhaps they still do. The school is a private day school in Downers Grove, Illinois, which serves student from Early Childhood through Eighth Group. (First through Eighth are referred to as "groups", not "grades", because most of the work that we do as students is not what people in other places would consider "at grade-level".) For me, I entered in Junior Kindergarten in the Fall of 1980, progressed to Senior Kindergarten in Fall 1981, and then entered First Group as a six-year-old in 1982, meaning that I was a thirteen-year-old Eighth Group student in Fall 1989.

ACS is a school designed for academically strong, intellectually curious students. There are positives and negatives to that, and both are probably more pronounced for a student with autism. The basic design of the curriculum challenges students, gives them opportunities to excel, and makes them want to come to school every day. Those are all good things, and I think for a student with autism they are really good things. The biggest negative of that, and again this is possibly amplified for an autistic student, is that when the rest of life isn't like that, some of that motivation that was always there is gone, and we didn't necessarily learn how to sustain it.

Another hugely important thing about ACS that made life as an autistic student better, which my clinician pointed out, is that we were all readily accepted for who we were. I think a lot of us had few friends outside of school, which I mostly say because of the number of birthday parties I went to in 1986 whose attendees were >95% my classmates.

Every year in Lower School, in every grading period, in every class, I got a grade of [–] in "Interacts Positively With Classmates". There was only one time, in one class, I managed a [✓–]. That always bothered me, because I felt like it was a deficiency but I didn't know why, and it was something I had no control over. It didn't bother anybody else, though. (My father always attributed it to me having no siblings to practice interpersonal interactions on. Later in life I attributed it to being an introvert, which in fairness is accurate but also a manifestation of the social side of autism.)

There's a famous story from my undergraduate days where I was doing clinical observations in a high school, and my instructor asked me one day what the racial demographics were of the class I was observing. I didn't know and said as much, and if that was something she wanted me to notice, I would be sure to take note and get back to her. We were both horrified for opposite reasons: She was horrified that I wouldn't notice that, and I was horrified that she thought it was so fundamental. I was relating that story at the alumni event to a student who was older than me, and it was absolutely understood; he could feel exactly what I was feeling. ACS, especially in the 1980s, taught us acceptance of others, but we felt not so much like diversity was to be celebrated as diversity didn't matter. That's not quite what I mean, but this was a very egalitarian environment. That's an environment in which autistic students are set up to thrive.

Onward and Upward

I think we have a lot of unintended consequences during my time at ACS where students with autism were given opportunities to succeed and thrive. I also think most of the things that I've come to realize in the last ten years that ACS did not prepare me well for in my life are things that are affected by having autism, which of course wasn't on my radar at all.

My clinician says that she was a student with (undiagnosed) autism in the public schools, and that experiences I would have had had I been that at that time would have been, to borrow from Lina Lamont, "detrimental and deleterious to my" experience. I think those who have the misfortune of having known me in my first year in the public schools, as a high school freshman, can see some of what she meant there. (I've said for many years that I was not a pleasant person as a high school freshman – I got better, mostly through three particular classes I had as a sophomore – and now I have a better idea why.) So there's a large extent to which being at ACS was very, very good for me, and at the same time there are ways which ACS got me to develop coping mechanisms that made it more difficult to unearth what is inside my brain thirty-odd years later.