The teacher, a stern woman of a certain age, folded her arms across her ample bosom and stared intently over the top of her thick-rimmed glasses. The reason for her evident irritation cowered before her – a painfully shy seven-year-old girl. A glass of milk sat untouched in front of the child.
Mrs S. had presided over her terrified charges in this classroom for as long as anyone in the school – teachers and pupils alike – could remember. The children knew she meant business and none of them had ever had the temerity to defy her. Not until the girl who refused to drink the milk. An elaborate bun sat atop her head like the valve of a pressure cooker ready to blow.
The teacher was perplexed by this awkward girl who was usually so obedient. How could a child be so academically bright and yet so infuriatingly clueless? She had Shirley Temple’s golden curls and chubby cheeks but none of her precocious self-confidence.
The girl sat with her eyes downcast, blushing furiously. This unbearably tense ritual had been going on every day for weeks after the rest of the class had been dismissed. Today, the milk had been tipped into a brightly-coloured beaker in a desperate attempt to coax the stubborn girl into drinking it. The strategy had not worked. A previous offer of a pretty straw had failed as well. Nobody had thought to wonder why such a scrupulously well-behaved child was suddenly so recalcitrant.
The clock ticked loudly and the painful stand-off continued.
I fought to hold back the tears. I knew I was in trouble. Everyone was cross with me. But however hard I tried, I just could not bring myself to try the milk again.
Every day, the crate of little bottles was set down beside a hot radiator to warm up the milk before the afternoon break. The result was that the milk took on a yellowy colour and little lumps floated to the top. Worse than the lumpy consistency was the smell. The milk was as appealing to me as a bottle of warm vomit. Pouring it into a beaker or sticking a straw into it did not change the fact that it was absolutely putrid.
I couldn’t tell anyone this at the time, of course. I didn’t know why this was so difficult for me. I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about sensory defensiveness or sensory avoidance. I didn’t know that I experienced smells and tastes more intensely than my classmates. I didn’t know I was more sensitive to temperature or consistency than they were. I only knew that I could not drink the milk.
Even if I had known how to put all those things into words, the words probably would not have come out: I was so afraid of authority figures (especially this one) that selective mutism would most probably have kicked in and rendered me speechless.
And so today, when I see people comment about a child refusing to ‘comply’ or being ‘difficult’ because they refuse a certain food or drink, I want to tell them to respect the sensory.
I want to tell them to take the time to understand.
I want to take them back in time to that frightened little girl and give her the words to tell them why. I want to give that little girl a voice.
About Maura Campbell
I am a senior manager in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, having worked there for 28 years, and served on the board of Specialisterne NI for two years. I’m married to Stephen and have a nine-year-old son called Darragh. We live in the rolling countryside of County Down. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in November 2011. I realised I was on the autism spectrum shortly after my son’s ASD diagnosis the previous year.