“Most of us use the term “fitting in” and “belonging” interchangeably … [but] fitting in and belonging are not the same thing … Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging on the other hand doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” ~ Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
There are times when you read something and it brings an epiphany, like a curtain being drawn back opening your thoughts to new vistas and realizations.
I read this paragraph at a time when the Navigator was struggling with social issues in his classroom. Whether due to increased social awareness of his classmates, increased workload on the Navigator, some combination of both, or something completely different that I didn’t realize, the Navigator’s stimming and struggling doing school work in the classroom was being noticed more and more.
“I hate it when people stare at me when I can’t get my work done,” he would complain. “When people stare at me, I can’t get my work done.”
It put him in a Catch-22.
While I had spoken to his general and special education teachers about holding the kids in his classroom accountable for unexpected behavior, and not just the Navigator, what he was experiencing was a part of a bigger issue.
It was the difference between fitting-in and belonging.
The Navigator has worked very hard on learning the things he has been taught about fitting-in – what is expected and unexpected behavior, what to do and not do in the classroom, in conversations, on the playground, etc.
He has come a very long way in fitting-in – becoming who he needed to be to be accepted.
“Do you want to tell your classmates that you have autism?” I sometimes asked him, thinking it might help with the staring.
“Yes. And no.” he would answer.
I could understand his ambivalence – it is a double-edged sword. He wants understanding and acceptance, and he does not want ridicule and bullying.
He is not sure which he would receive if he told his classmates he had autism.
Perhaps this is one of the things he means when he says “home is safe.” At home he has belonging, he is accepted for who he is.
At school fitting-in doesn’t feel safe because if “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted,” and if from his perspective the situation may continually change, assessing the situation and coming who he needs to fit in would be a demanding full-time job.
Under those circumstances, there would be very little opportunity to relax, simply be who he was, and thereby feel safe.
But there is no belonging.
My eyes are opened. No longer can I settle for support of his learning to “fit in” only. We need to be supporting his belonging in the classroom, too.