Playground 'Fads' Can Be the Social Glue for Kids With Disabilities

Fidget spinners, Woolworths Marvel Hero discs, loom bands, Pokemon, YuGiOh, Magic cards, the list of fads in the primary school playground goes on. I have memories of similar trends which for my generation included elastics, yo-yos, and sticker collections. These trends were a big part of what my friends and I would share and talk about in my primary school years.

As an educator and Mum, I see the social aspects and social learning opportunities of primary school as one of the key purposes of attending school. Some children find social play relatively easy regardless of the environment and materials at hand. For other children, fads and trends can play a vital role in creating a shared point of interest, which can lead to many opportunities for connection and interaction. For some children with developmental delays or disabilities, participating in typical playground gross motor play such as handball or chasing, may not come as easily. Such play may require additional support from adults in order to be meaningful and successful. Teachers on playground duty are responsible for all children and usually have limited capacity to facilitate social play.

The differences between outdoor spaces found in early childhood education and care settings and primary school playgrounds are particularly striking to me. There are so few resources available to play with when children make the transition to big school. For children who don’t have strengths with initiating social play, there can be big implications for inclusion. Often, early childhood intervention practitioners do lots of vital work around this area, in partnership with all those involved in a child’s transition to help children adjust to this new social context.

I was talking recently with Sarah, a Mum of 7-year-old Jamie who has autism spectrum disorder, who told me, “At my kids’ school, Magic cards were banned because there were cases of children stealing other children’s cards.

For my son, this had been the only social thing he had joined in without teachers’ help and he wasn’t one of the children involved in stealing, so it didn’t seem fair. When this was suddenly removed, I was so worried what the repercussions would be for my child. I felt a need to talk with my child’s teacher about my concerns and I’m glad I did. The school staff were able to help our son connect with other children through a new lunch time card-playing club they set up,” said Sarah, “I don’t think the teacher had originally thought of the side effects of this ban on kids like Jamie, and by nicely talking to her about it, we were able to come up with a solution.”

I have been wondering why there are often negative stories in the mainstream and social media about these types of fads. On social media, I often notice people criticizing the latest trends and commenting on how “children should just be using their imagination” without realizing that not all children play or imagine in the same ways.

At times, schools have trouble managing these sorts of popular interests. In some situations, schools have even banned certain objects from school grounds entirely. Of course, it’s understandable, if there are challenges that arise, these need to be managed in a positive way. However, I don’t feel that blanket bans often go far towards tackling behaviors of concern and can actually accidentally disadvantage and punish the children who may need these activities the most.

Articles criticizing the latest playground trends, don’t seem to recognize the function that objects such as fidget spinners can play in terms of social inclusion, particularly for children with developmental delays or disabilities. There may also be calming sensory benefits of objects such as fidget spinners for some children. I think it’s quite exciting when by chance the latest thing that all the cool kids are into, could also help children with sensory processing issues to self-regulate without requiring a “special,” obvious, “therapy” type object which could make the child stand out as different!

A version of this post appeared on Inclusion Together

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Morgan's Inspiration Island Is the World's First Accessible Water Park

Beating the heat this summer just got a bit easier thanks to a Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a new and accessible water park. Opening June 17, Morgan’s Inspiration Island is an “ultra-accessible” water park in San Antonio, Texas.

The family-friendly attraction is the sister park to Morgan’s Wonderland — the first fully-accessible theme park. Like Morgan’s Wonderland, every part of the park is wheelchair accessible and waterproof wristbands with RFID technology are available for parents concerned about getting separated from their children.

“When Morgan’s Wonderland opened in spring 2010, we really didn’t know what to expect, but the park’s popularity has grown tremendously and encouraged us to add Morgan’s Inspiration Island,” Gordon Hartman, founder of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which developed the park, said in a statement.  “Now, we’ll have two attractions like none other that everyone – regardless of ability or age – can enjoy.  Morgan’s Inspiration Island promises to give individuals with physical or cognitive special needs a place where they can splash and play without barriers.”

Both parks were named after and inspired by Hartman’s 23-year-old daughter, Morgan, who lives with a disability. The Foundation also operates The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, a school for students with disabilities. 

The water park has been under construction since 2015, with developers working to ensure the park’s safety and accessibility. “For the past three years, we’ve been collaborating with water park consultants from Texas, Arizona, Florida and Canada as well as local doctors, special needs therapists, special education teachers, parents and caregivers,” Hartman said. “We believe Morgan’s Inspiration Island will be tremendously popular because both children and adults in wheelchairs will be able to have fun in the South Texas sun.”

The park features a river boat adventure ride, an eight-acre catch and release fishing lake and five tropical-themed water play areas. “Like Morgan’s Wonderland, Morgan’s Inspiration Island is not a special-needs park; it’s a park of inclusion,” Hartman added. “Both were designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment.”

Parkgoers with powerchairs can also access the park’s waterproof wheelchairs, powered by compressed air, in addition to two other types of waterproof wheelchairs. Those with a disability visiting the park can enter free of charge. After its June 17 launch, the park will be open every day until Mid-August, switching to weekends-only for the remainder of the month through September.

According to Hartman, due to the park’s popularity, those interested in visiting the park should order tickets in advance online.

Happy mother and joyful son sunset silhouette.

What It Takes to Parent a Child With a Disability

Sometimes I’m asked what it’s like to have a child with a disability. I’m praised for my parenting, lauded for my patience and my ability to care for my child. While I appreciate the sentiment, the truth is I’m no more of a super mom than anyone else. I stumble, I fall, I lose my temper sometimes. I struggle to find balance and order in our family’s life and schedule. My child is not all that different from any other child, not at the core anyway. And he’s certainly not hard to love.

I am a good mom; this I know and will take credit for. But I’m not special. I wasn’t given this child because I was strong enough, or extraordinary in some way. And let’s be very clear, my child is not a burden. He’s just a person; granted an incredible one, at least in my eyes. As parents, our job is to love, to encourage, to care for, to teach, and to provide for our children. This is what I do. In many ways, my life as a parent is not much different from anyone else’s.

I don’t want to take away credit where credit is due. There are so many hardworking parents of kids with disabilities out there, and they deserve to be acknowledged for moving the mountains they move to ensure their children flourish and thrive. Being a parent takes guts, not because of the children we have, but because of the world we live in. While we have come a long way, we still have far to go in the areas of accessibility, acceptance, and inclusion. Sometimes we have to fight a lot harder to have our children’s needs met. We have to learn things we never thought we’d know how to do. We often have to work harder at the things that usually come naturally in life.

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d be able to parent a child with a disability, I believe the answer is of course you could. You don’t think about it, you just do it. You take what is in front of you, and you figure it out. All it really takes is a willingness to learn, and an open heart and mind. If you can be a good parent, you can be a good parent to a child with a disability. If you’re at the beginning of your journey in the world of disability, rest assured, you’ve got this. I’m not going to tell you it will be easy, but it will be worth it.

I’m grateful. I’m thankful that I’m lucky enough to be Mom to a special kid. The things that make him special are not the things that make him different, but the things he brings to the world; kindness, innocence, love, determination, and so much more. Being a parent to a child with a disability is hard, but it’s also really quite simple. As trite as it sounds, all you really need is love. Oh, and a little backbone, and a lot of coffee.

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Entering the World of My Child on the Autism Spectrum

One of the worst fears as a parent many of us probably share is how to keep our children safe from harm. We might spend countless hours worrying about sickness, physical/metal/emotional harm, appointments, bullying, school and much more befalling our children. We might run around doing things for our kids, plus cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and baths — sometimes we might even forget to take time out for us. With the million and one items on our checklist of to do’s and worrying, it is no wonder we might not take time to enjoy the little things.

We lived in Louisiana, in the deep, deep south. Copperheads reared themselves at every opportunity. At one time, the farmers’ bulls escaped ensuring, everyone stayed safe and locked up in our homes until the sheriff let us know the coast was clear. I won’t even get into the alligator farm the bank seized, leaving the alligators to fend for themselves. Needless to say, Louisiana was rich with culture and wildlife, but I worried non-stop about things that could harm my son.

I’ll never forget the day Chris taught me something about the “little things” in life. This was also the day I realized just how much worry I carried. Our two mile driveway was made from rock and stone with a natural pond that overflowed every time it rained. Outside, Chris was jumping in and out of puddles. I found such enjoyment watching him, considering not much amused my 3-year-old. I followed him back and forth, with less than a foot spacing between us. After an hour of this, my nerves were shot. I felt like I said, “Chris, please don’t,” or “Chris, be careful,” so much that if that was a song on the radio, it would have been played out.

At one point, he looked up at me with his big, brown eyes and said, “Ma, drop.” I squinted my eyes, as if that helped clarify what he was saying or helped me to hear better. He again said, “Ma drop,” but this time pointed to the ground. “Oh, you mean jump. Is that what you are trying to say, you want mommy to jump?” He smiled ear to ear and shook his head yes. Here, is where I realized, I was officially an anxious parent. No way, who knows what’s in that water? Knowing my luck, I would jump, cut my foot, bacteria would devour it, have a visit to the hospital, and be off my feet for a week. Yeah, nope. I bent down towards Chris, grabbed his little hands softly, and said, “I’m sorry, buddy, but mommy can’t do it. I don’t even want you to because I don’t want you to get hurt. But, you are having so much fun and mommy wants you to be happy.”

Chris looked down at the ground and his jump didn’t have as much pep. I had never felt so bad as a parent until that day. I bent down again to ask him what was wrong. When Chris was upset, he would get distant or mad. This was one of those times. Just jump you fool! You used to jump off buildings into pools as a kid, but you can’t jump barefoot in a puddle. Wham. I had just hit a brick wall of enlightenment. Here, my son wanted to play and all I could think about was protecting him and myself from unlikely possible harm. He took it as me not wanting to play with him and I…..well, I was being a silly parent.

We played even when the rain came. After baths, dinner and bed, the house fell silent again. In the country, when things are silent, there is almost a loneliness that befalls like a blanket softly falling over you. The term, “you can hear a pin drop,” doesn’t quite describe it. I was left to my thoughts and began rehashing the day in my mind. I imagine all my son wanted me to do was enter his world. I want him to feel accepted and understood. I believe he needed me to jump in those puddles and I hope by doing so he felt all those wonderful things. It was the smallest thing to do, compared to the everyday battles and hurdles. I was happy I entered Chris’s world. I cringed then and still do, thinking I almost didn’t because of all the “possible harm.”

I know how hard it can be to take time to enjoy the little moments. I can have many little and big things in my mind — trying to have my children adjust to certain social norms, how to teach my child this, or all the “don’t, no, wait, in a second.” I am blinded by all those things and don’t stop to try and see it through my child’s eyes. For me, it is important to enter my child’s world. No matter how unusual, off the beaten path or stressful it may seem. Later, I believe my child will be ever thankful for it.

Chris is now 9 years old. Driving in the car I asked him, “Do you feel I understand you?” He shook his head yes. “OK, next question: Do you feel accepted by me?” He shook his head yes, again. Piling out of the car, he gave me a hug. He said, “Mom, you know when I say I hate you, I really don’t. I mean, I’m mad. It’s usually because you tell me “no.” I get it, though.” I teared up then and even now, while writing this. I believe going into his world allowed him to blossom in mine.

As parents I believe it is imperative to enter our children’s world first, before pointing out all the things they need to change or think about. I think of it this way: Could I explain what chocolate ice cream tastes like if I’ve never had it before? So, how could I explain the “ins and outs” of the world to my child if I don’t know how they view it?

Follow this journey at Ronnie’s blog.

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Tag on suit that says "hard of hearing."

Why I Find Labels Powerful as a Person With a Disability

In my job, I am responsible for identifying and discussing disabilities in school children. In my personal life, I make it a point to name and discuss my disability when the occasion or need arises.

As policy at my job, a student’s disability is “confidential.” I understand why this policy is in place. Parents and students — especially those acclimating to a new eligibility — can be extra-sensitive to discussing it. Out of concern for their child’s well-being, parents may be reluctant to “give it a name” so to speak. They fear their child being “labeled.” Naming it makes it more real, more permanent and more open to negative connotations brought on not necessarily by the disability itself, but by other people’s reactions based on misinformation, misinterpretation and fear.

I understand. I do. As difficult as it can be though, I advocate for personal knowledge and discussion. I think it is only right that the person with a disability has a name for the symptoms they experience. You cannot “hide” the disability from the person experiencing it, no matter what the name. The “label” can answer so many questions about what is going on with the person’s own body and mind.

Knowledge — accurate knowledge — creates ownership. One of the best things I experienced was talking about my disability when I was as young as 8 years old.  I stood in front of other 8-year-olds and said I was born with things like “Goldenhar syndrome” and “Hydrocephalus due to aqueductal stenosis.” Was I a young Einstein? No. Did I actually understand what any of those terms meant with any medical specificity? Not really. But without those words, my teachers could think of me as “lazy” when I didn’t follow directions — when in actuality I didn’t hear them. My peers could think of me as weird and at fault because I didn’t speak like they did or move like them. Why should they include me if I wouldn’t conform?

Talking about it helped give me the words to advocate for myself when it came to my disability needs. I could correct the bullies not by giving them back the hate and fear they were giving me, but by granting them the words to make my disability comprehensible to them and part of their experience. My label also made it possible for me to ask for what I needed to learn or function with my teachers and other adults.

Labels can help people without disabilities as well. We humans by nature categorize as a way to determine how to act. I have a hearing impairment. I often don’t hear people when they are on my right side, as I have unilateral hearing. When strangers don’t know that, they may treat me as negatively as any other person who might “ignore” them, or just walk away insulted. These acts devalue me as a human being. Conversely, if they know I have a hearing impairment, they have a number of constructive options. They can position themselves on my “good side” before they speak to me. They can tap my shoulder to get my attention. These options show me I am respected.

In each of these scenarios, I am labeled. In the first scenario I am labeled “rude” and rejected. Both of us miss out on making a connection. We miss sharing our personalities and strengths because of a lack of knowledge on their part. But that is not their fault. It is mine. Often when I see people turn away from me like that, whether I realize why or not, I end up thinking “their loss” and am offended as well. They blame me for being rude when I wasn’t, and I blame them for acting unfairly even though they do not know about my disability.

In the second scenario, I am labeled “hard of hearing” and accommodated with understanding. We communicate effectively and share a mutual respect based on equity. Once we do that, we can move past my disability and share common interests and individual strengths — and even flaws. The second scenario requires both of us to stretch a little beyond what may commonly be our “comfort zone.” I have to understand that other people may not have the same experiences as I do. With that experience comes specific vocabulary. I have to give them the appropriate words to describe who I really am based on my experiences. They have to accept those words and understand them as a positive experience, potentially altering the world view they may have had before our encounter.

Words are one of our smallest forms of communication. Yet they have a lot of power. Words describe and categorize our world and experience. In and of themselves, words are neutral, objective. However, we have the power to impart meaning on words. We have the power to use our words for good — to unite, to create understanding, to make positive connections. The labels we use as people with disabilities are powerful. Sharing labels, using them with nondisabled people can create connections, understanding and respect. Not using them can create fear, misunderstandings and division.

It is up to each of us — disabled and nondisabled — to choose to use our words to empower or devalue. Which do you choose?

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How I've Built a Circle of Friends, Despite Social Anxiety, to Help Support Me

So, a little background on me. When I was a child I had a lot of mental/emotional challenges, learning challenges, and social challenges. By 13, I was already diagnosed as manic depressive, bipolar, and having gross motor and fine motor disabilities. I didn’t have any friends. There were really no answers for me for a very long time. They finally placed me in an outpatient day treatment program through an alternative school. This is where I finally found people who were more like me. I had a friend who saw through my awkwardness, pain and challenges to create a real friendship. I know this person was the first person to put me on the road to being better.

Over the years, I have worked with many professionals and various spiritual teachers. What has helped me the most though has been finding people to connect to.

There are times when my depression may prevent me from taking action. There are situations where my social anxiety prevents me from pursuing an opportunity. And there are just some habits I cannot develop because of how I function. I used to believe these challenges would prevent me from ever having a happy, successful life. I have also seen many people feel the same way about their challenges. Here’s the solution that worked for me.

I have found through having a large social circle with specific individuals as my friends that my weaknesses do not actually really matter. It started out many years ago, as I mentioned, with my first friend. We found we both loved words, and we used to have competitions to see if we knew the most obscure words. This led to my realizing and recognizing that while many people will attack my weaknesses, there were some who weren’t offended by them. This first person opened me enough to start seeking and finding other people. Because of my social anxiety, it was not an easy process.

Luckily, AOL had just become extremely popular (yes, I am old). The chat rooms provided a forum for me to connect with people through the anonymity of the internet. I typically opened a chat room called “Good Listener.” I started hearing other people’s stories and talking about my own. This sometimes led to me meeting up with other people in person. I really started to find people who were capable of being compassionate with my challenges. While it did not remove my social anxiety, it reduced it enough for me to be able to talk more to people, especially on the phone. This whole process occurred during my late teens and early 20s.

I had just started working as an office temp during these years. I found my personal challenges made it difficult to hold down a traditional job. As a result, I was drawn to studying to become a massage therapist. While the academic portion was a bit of a challenge, I found I was a strong kinesthetic learner, so learning massage was a good fit. While studying for massage, I learned about Reiki. (If you don’t know about Reiki, I highly recommend a little bit of research.) Anyway, as a result of my first Reiki attunement, I started having a number of synchronistic experiences, one of which led me to a spiritual store where I started taking classes with people on divination, meditation, healing and different traditions. Through having my positive experiences with people on AOL, I was able to be open to connecting with some of the people I met through these classes.

The more I connected with people the more I started seeing how unique each and every person is. Over the years since then, I have learned that while I cannot do many things, the one thing I do well is love and appreciate those whom I connect with. I have found since a lot people are not used to gratitude and appreciation, that is often enough for them to want to support me. The important part of this practice is to not rely on just a few people. When someone feels they are the only person, or they are one of the only people to support you, it can become too much.

There are actually people who are afraid of co-dependent relationships. Some are even so afraid that they believe any dependent relationship is automatically a co-dependent relationship. We would not have the word “co-dependent” if being dependent was automatically that. The way I avoid co-dependent relationships is in creating a larger quantity of friends. It is almost like realizing if I needed help carrying 100 pounds of something, I could ask four people to carry 25 pounds or I could ask 25 people to carry 4 pounds. Having the 25 people means no one ends up feeling like I am too much weight. I do not expect or demand that people help me. I request and ask for support but recognize it is not anyone’s obligation.

The other thing I have realized in creating positively dependent relationships is I must accurately assess the skills of the person whom I am asking for help. I used to believe if someone loved me they could help me. At least for me, this is not true. I need people with a certain type of intelligence and/or various skills to support my path. Just because someone loves me does not automatically mean they are skilled in the ways I need. Fortunately, my work has led me to interacting with a wide variety of people.

I wrote this article because I believe it is important to teach people that when they build the right community, even though they experience challenges, their life does not need to be a challenge. I recognize this is only one possible solution, but it is a solution that most people are never educated about.

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Thinkstock photo by DAJ

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