Our son was really, really, really excited to go back to school this fall. He couldn’t sleep in; the loud clapping down our hallway began at dawn, with the occasional flurry on the keyboards or drum in his “music room,” which is also our guest bedroom and my wife’s makeshift office. Breakfast was inhaled in a blur, and he was ready for the school day.
There had been no real school days since March. I wouldn’t call the Zoom sessions or Google classroom assignments anything like fifth-grade classes; instead, they were lessons in patience and humility for all of us, his indefatigable teachers and administrators included.
Our 11-year-old son, Julian, is on the autism spectrum. My wife, Tiffany Moser ’07 Berks, who works in education, understands the difficulties for children with special needs as a counselor and parent. Routines are essential; “scaffolding” his days is a must. We have schedules for everything, from what you do after you’ve gone to the bathroom to the five-step process of going to bed: 5-minute timer, brush teeth, 5-minute timer, take a “ride” on the “bedtime train,” have some water and some melatonin, settle into bed while the TV blares “Soundscapes,” a new-age music channel.
The pandemic created havoc for all of us, but it robbed Julian of the predictable progression from one classroom to another; instead, he spent the day in a hastily constructed impromptu learning space in our kitchen, where he’d zone out during video classes or simply laugh at himself making funny faces into the laptop camera. A loss of routine meant a loss of control; without a map to his days, every hour was like spelunking without a flashlight. Emotions were unregulated. Sleep was fretful.
The detachment has been hard to witness. Despite his diagnosis, he thrives on human connection. He is a curious child who loves to be around people; it’s endearing to see him fumble in social situations, but without the awareness to know he’s fumbling. He’s excelled with the use of video as a connective tool; where class instruction was a fight for his attention, the unpredictability of online conversation brought out his best. (Another possible byproduct of autism: maddening inconsistency.) When speech therapy sessions returned, he quickly mastered taking turns during games and has improved in his ability to ask and answer questions.
He was eager to try these new skills at school, which promised a fresh series of caves to explore. We were apprehensive about the reopening; we weren’t looking forward to grappling with masks—not his strong suit, even as we kept reminding him of “the emergency”—or explaining why he couldn’t high-five his angel of an aide, Christine Claytor ’93 Lib, or see the smiles of validation from teachers and peers. And yet, for all we’ve lost during this pandemic, we’ve gained some things more important: perspective and resilience. In the end, we’re all exploring these caves together.
James Tyler is a senior editor at ESPN FC.