After my son was diagnosed with autism, I constantly worried about how the world would treat him. Those worries escalated when he was at school interacting with classmates and under the care of others, but with the help of his teachers we found a way to help foster a positive, supportive community for him. It was accomplished by talking to his classmates about autism, and the results have been more effective and encouraging than I ever hoped.
Alex is outgoing, energetic, and has a knack for improv comedy. His big brother is his best friend and his favorite things are Minecraft, sea lions and Lego. He is also autistic, with some social, sensory, attention and impulse control issues. As “Twice-Exceptional,” it seems at times that he is caught in between the typical and special-needs world, so sometimes he struggles to find a sense of belonging and acceptance. As he grew older, those struggles became greater, and we hoped to find a way to help.
Some of you may be wondering why I would want my son’s classmates to know about his autism label. Wouldn’t that complicate things because he would seem more different? I believe honest dialogue about special needs is crucial to acceptance, and that children can be surprisingly open-minded about diversity and uniqueness. If you tell them, “Different is cool,” they will believe you. The trick is to explain those differences in a matter-of-fact and positive way, before they can be affected by the prejudices of the world.
I once read these words:
“If you’re the parent of a child with AS and worried about what will happen if other students find out, here’s a thought: they already know. They know they have a classmate who has different and difficult behaviors. But they don’t realize the reasons. And the reasons they imagine are much worse than the facts.”
I felt that they were more likely to be kind if they understood more about him. As the article stated, “… children are never too young to learn that… we need to treat each other with patience, kindness and understanding.”
I was also inspired by a talk given by the Executive Director of our local Autism Society chapter, who shared that it was important to share with classmates about strengths, weaknesses, and how the other children could help.
Taking that into account, Alex and I first shared with his classmates about autism when he was in the first grade. We did it again when he was in second grade, both times in conjunction with his Star Student presentation.
Any time I discuss autism, it is with Alex’s permission, and he is proud to talk about his “special brain.” We wanted to show that autism is just one of the many things that makes Alex interesting (if you want to read the script I used, you can find it here: “The Star: Telling Classmates About Autism”). We made sure to point out that even though Alex was a little bit different, he also was just the same as the other students. Both times I contacted the teacher first to gain permission, and gave her a copy of what would be said so that she could be prepared to answer any questions the students may have later.
There were still the occasional bumpy moments after the autism discussion, but we could feel secure in the knowledge that Alex had allies (and an appreciative audience for his many jokes). I even heard from some supportive, positive parents. It was incredibly encouraging. Certain students went out of their way to help Alex stay organized, calm him when frustrated and even defend him. One dear girl became quite angry when she heard Alex referred to as “crazy in his head.” She protested, “I don’t care what you say, he is my FRIEND! He just has some trouble sometimes with his big feelings.”
This past school year, the opportunity to share about autism had not yet presented itself. When I finally mentioned it to Alex’s third grade teacher I was pleasantly surprised find out that she had already broached the subject with her students. She said:
“I wanted to be sure that they all understood his different needs. I use my morning meeting time to talk about empathy, our differences, and tolerance. When I told the children that he has autism, I asked them if they knew what that was. Some of the kids that had him in their class last year remembered your lesson about him thinking differently.
“I talked to them about how he is unique (just like all of them) and he uses his brain differently. I told them that he sometimes needs brain breaks to recharge and that he sometimes needs to get out of his seat, walk around, jump, or mumble to himself. I told them that these things all are okay, and that it is just his way of gathering information so that he can do his best.
“This class is so receptive and kind and they really seemed to understand. One of the kids said, ‘Yeah, and he is REALLY smart!’ We all adore him.”
I was deeply moved that she cared enough to broach such a potentially complicated topic, and that she did so to help create a positive, inclusive atmosphere in her classroom. What’s even more inspiring is that her students soon had the opportunity to put her teachings about acceptance into action, and decided to stand up and advocate for Alex.
A substitute teacher was brought into Alex’s classroom at the last minute who had not yet been informed of his IEP accommodations. The collaborative Exceptional Education teacher later shared with me that when she arrived in the class, she noticed the substitute redirecting Alex to stop moving around. Just as the ExEd teacher was about to explain to the substitute that Alex required certain accommodations, the STUDENTS spoke up instead.
She later told me, “It was as if the other children were feeling that they had to advocate for him… They were being very protective of Alex.” The students politely informed the substitute that he was doing what he usually does and works better when he can take breaks and get out of his chair, saying, “Our teacher lets him move around the class.” Then several students pitched in and helped Alex get refocused and caught up on the lesson. According to the ExEd teacher, after that, the rest of the day went much more smoothly and the substitute seemed to have a better understanding of Alex.
Thanks to a caring group of students, a day that could have been potentially frustrating for Alex turned into a great day instead. Alex’s Ex Ed teacher said, “All I could think of was what an amazing group of kids he has in his class! They understand and support him as well as admire his strengths.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Some of those caring students are in the picture in this article (with their parents’ permission), and I feel blessed that they and other incredible children have consistently supported and befriended Alex over the past several years. That is what happens when children are taught to be kind and embrace uniqueness, and they have parents who back up those positive teachings at home. It also helps to have caring teachers who are willing to tackle the tough subjects and practice inclusiveness in their classroom.
I am immensely grateful to all the teachers, students and parents who have given my entire family a sense of community and support! Every day when I send my child to school I can relax, secure in the knowledge that he is in good hands.
This is a follow-up to a previous story at The Mighty, “How I Explained My Son’s Autism Diagnosis to Him.”
Portions of this story first appeared on the website, “Seriously Not Boring.” You can also find Jennifer Bittner at her Seriously Not Boring Facebook page.
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