Remembering Matt: My Autistic Best Friend.
by James P. Wagner
I met Matt when I was in the 8th grade. Alright, so his name wasn't really Matt—but for the purposes of the story, that's what we will call him. I had just transferred
to a new school because of hard times at my old one and it was difficult enough
coming in the last year of the 3 year middle school when everyone else had
known each other for at minimum 2 years already (and many of them had
connections going back to elementary school). I think I was drawn to Matt
because he, like me, seemed to be an outsider who had barely anyone to talk
Although not too many people talked to him, everyone knew him, as he was a very hard to forget kinda character. First off, he was huge—about twice the size of the rest of the kids. Secondly, he would walk through the hallways completely in his own world, repeating things he had heard from television shows to himself while twiddling his fingers completely oblivious (or perhaps purposefully ignoring) the other kids who would laugh at him for this behavior.
To be totally honest, getting his attention atfirst wasn't particularly easy for me either—but my young mind tried very hard to get to know him because him and his one friend Joe were the only two kids I felt I had a chance of connecting with. I was ignored quite a few times, other times I managed to get his attention for brief moments before being disregarded and one time I was even thrown across the cafeteria into a giant pile of backpacks when Matt thought I was talking to his friend Joe more than he was and had gotten a little bit jealous. But in the great days of youth, you can be thrown across a room by someone one day and be their best buddy the next day. After the backpack incident that resulted in both of us being sent to the time out room, Matt and I started talking—mostly about pointless things like
television shows, video games we played, and how much the teachers annoyed us.
One thing we both had in common was being in special ed classes. And one thing
that annoyed us both was how the teachers talked very, very slowly while at the
same time conveying absolute no information to us whatsoever.
It became very obvious to me early on that Matt had no need to be in the special needs classes. Not only was he able to reach mathematical calculations faster than the teachers could with their calculators, but he had every date memorized in history class and the entire periodic table committed to memory. So why did his grades end up slipping enough for him to be put in these classes? Me and him shared something else in common—we both refused to do the homework. (Both of us had found it a complete waste of time—honestly my opinion on this hasn't changed much over the years.) and Matt, like myself, found the teachers monotone lectures and slow speech to be completely and utterly boring. In fact, we had quite a lot in common in our
approaches to school when we were that age. The only major difference between
us was that I didn't walk around twiddling my fingers or talk with much of a
lisp as he did. That's probably why when we got sent to the counselors and the
labels came—I was only slapped with ADD while Matt was hit with the label of
being fully autistic.
The thing that shocked me the most was how differently Matt, myself and those other kids who had labels were treated than the rest of the children. In fact, after a schoolyard fight that Matt was involved in with another student (to which I might point out, the other student started) Matt was assigned a teacher aid to follow him around, this tradition followed him from 8th grade until 10th grade despite the fact he changed schools. (Whereas my label of ADD left me shortly after 9th grade
thanks to my mother's absolute refusal for me to be put on drugs which sparked
many doctor visits, blood tests and evaluations until I was finally given a
crack back in the regular classes. And wouldn't you know it, I shortly after
got pushed into advanced classes—go figure!)
Matt's label followed him for his entire high school career. Mine however, did not. This always struck me as unfair. Matt and myself shared the same stubbornness, our same refusal to do work, our same negative views of the way the schools were ran. We had similar problems with other children, and similar approaches in our academic performances. So what separated me from him? His lisp, and the fact he would twiddle his fingers seemed to me, to be the only major differences that set us apart. Of course that wasn't true—as I learned later on when studying the differences in our
abilities. Matt for example was far better at calculation than I was—not that I
was slow, in fact I was above average—but he was far greater. I became aware
very early on that I had a selective photographic memory—that is a memory that
would retain even the slightest detail of things that caught my attention. I
used to think this was the same thing with Matt, until I realized that he would
remember things I had no memory of—his lack of interest in these things was
even greater than mine, because he remembered them, but chose not to
acknowledge them whatsoever! One of the skills I seemed to have a better
concept of than he did however, was being able to read people and talk to them.
And that made my time slightly more bearable than his. He was treated like an
alien—a being from another planet. Someone who logic and reason, or even
compassion wouldn't work on. Of course, this wasn't always the case. In fact,
several teachers has very different approaches to how they handled him. Three
in particular come to mind: Mrs. F, Ms T and Mr. L.
Mrs. F. was a very strict middle-aged teacher. Not only was she in fact middle-aged but she had the draconian mentality of the middle ages. She was the one who would hand out a journal and grade it—the one who would insist on an hour of homework every night for her class alone even though you had 7 other classes at least. The one who would give you arbitrary tasks insisting they were essential to learning. She was the type who would even insist you held your pen a certain way. And you ALWAYS had to use a BLACK pen, NEVER a blue pen because BLUE pens were less professional than BLACK pens. She not only insisted on a journal every week, great grades on the tests and about a bagillion homework assignments. But three days a week she would make us sit there and read silently from the book and if we were even the slightest bit distracted she would scream at us. Needless to say, Matt already got good grades on all the tests in this class. It was history—he knew the dates backwards. But that didn't matter to Mrs. F. So you can imagine the fit she threw when she found him doing work for another class during the free reading period. Matt found himself in constant trouble in that class for not following the arbitrary rules she set forth. In fact I think he was the only one in the entire class to
somehow end up with a C- despite getting 100's on all the tests. This of course,
thanks to the constant participation points she would deduct or take away
because of his refusal to “follow the rules.”
Ms. T. was in many ways the exact opposite of Mrs. F, very compassionate and very understanding, but also very coddling. Too coddling. She didn't have many hard set rules at all in this English class—in fact, when it came to Matt, she seemed to have none at all. He could miss the homework and she would give him an extra two days, three days, week to get it to her. (Although when I missed the homework I got it marked off right away!) Matt got extra time on not only the tests as was part of his IEP but on all the quizzes and even some in class assignments! If he didn't participate in discussions or didn't contribute to the analysis of the books, or the reading
he still got credit for doing so. In fact, I can't recall him doing much of anything in this class at all. Other students who did more work than him, somehow ended up with C's and B's—Matt? An A-. I guess in a cosmic sense this makes up for the crap he got in Mrs. F's class—but the rest of the students sure didn't like it—and they had a point.
Mr. L. was the middle ground between these two teachers. In math, there were no two ways about it—he has the syllabus for the class laid out, the two tests a month and the homework assignments. The journal was optional, class participation with problems on the board were more for encouragement and help with the subject matter. The in class problems and the practice quizzes were all optional—some students did them religiously, Matt did none of them—but still passed every test with flying colors. He knew of Matt's “disability” and still expected the same results. But how Matt got there was his own business. And it was only in this class that Matt seemed to thrive and have the best time. (I should point out that other students who didn't participate in the in-class help and extra problem solving time didn't fare as well as Matt. Mr. L. didn't care if you held your pen one way or the other or what ink
you used but if you didn't perform at the levels he expected, you failed—and it
didn't matter who you were.)
I honestly wish I could remember more teachers like Mr. L, but in my time in school at least until later college, they were very few and very far between. And students like Matt, and myself, had a hard time of it because of their scarcity.
Later in life I lost contact with Matt. And with much regret, his label ended up getting the best of him both internally and externally. (That however, is a much longer story for another time.) But I always remember how capable he was and what great feats he might have accomplished if there was more people within the system who could see that his differences were not weaknesses but merely alternatives.