When I try to teach our oldest son how best to respond to some of his younger brother’s actions to avoid a meltdown, he generally assumes he is “just not good with him.” For the most part, I take this as normal behavior between brothers who have an age difference of five and a half years, with one in elementary school and one in middle school.
One day after school, my older son, shared with us that P.E. was “stressful.” He explained he was in the same group with Don, who is generally an easygoing and happy kid. He does not speak in full sentences, is slower due to tiptoeing while walking or running and has trouble following directions and participating in P.E. routines. Apparently, only one girl in the group was able to communicate effectively with Don and help him participate. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that other children, my son included, viewed the ability to engage with Don as a valuable asset. This led to a conversation about how learning to relate to his brother more effectively can be a great practice for situations in school. Don’s presence during just one class did more for my son’s motivation to learn a useful social skill than all my explaining and lecturing prior to that.
Our younger son is in a special day class due to his autism-related needs, and although I appreciate the small class size, I am concerned about the exclusion and isolation it brought to his and our lives. It drastically limits his opportunities to socialize in inclusive settings. And I believe it also deprives students without disabilities in the mainstream classrooms from opportunities to learn how to engage with children of various abilities.
Up until now, I advocated for an inclusive education environment for my son with autism, focusing mainly on how it would benefit his ability to integrate into society and become a productive member. But now I also wish my older son would have more experiences like the one in P.E., more opportunities to interact meaningfully and collaborate working toward common goals with children his age who have different abilities. I think it enriches him as a human being, builds his communication and leadership skills and helps him be a better friend and brother.
Having a child with disability changed the way I see and react to other people. I realized how quick I have been to judge and to stare in disapproval or disdain. Mainly because prior to having a child with autism, I had no opportunities to socialize with people who are wired differently than me.
What I want for both of my children is a society where one is not automatically seen as a “freak” due to being different, and the other is not automatically “freaked out” due to not knowing how to react to this type of diversity. Socialization starts in the family, but the main vehicle for it, in most cases, is the school.
With the 2015 estimate by National Center for Health Statistics that 1 in 45 children in U.S, ages 3 through 17, have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I believe it’s time to reconsider how special education is provided in public schools and the impact it might have on our future as a society. Personally, I am worried seeing missed opportunities daily in both of my children’s education and social lives.
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