When My Son With Down Syndrome Was First Included in a Typical Classroom

In the late 90s’ inclusion was just coming into its own. After much discussion, fear and trepidation, we and the rest of the IEP team decided our son, Daniel (he went by “Danny” then — he prefers the more manly “Dan” now) would join his  fourth grade class, with a para at his side. His young teacher had never had a student with Down Syndrome, and her college education hadn’t included anything about inclusion. She had no idea what to expect.

On the first day of class, the teacher assigned a quick fun writing assignment: they were to write and illustrate what they wished they had done over the summer — their ideal fantasy summer. They would present their work in 30 minutes. She walked back to Dan’s desk and quietly told the para that Danny could just draw a picture of whatever he wanted (because, of course, he couldn’t possibly understand such a complex assignment), and he didn’t have to get up in front of the class. Well, Danny started drawing. Circles. Lots of circles. Circles within circles, one circle filled with what looked like circular eyeballs. He worked feverishly, knitting his brows in concentration. Then the students began their presentations. One student told about playing professional baseball. Another showed the airplanes and limos she bought with the million dollars she won. The kids were really getting into this assignment. Then Danny tugged on his para’s sleeve and said, “Me turn.”

When the teacher asked, “Who’s next?” the para said, “I think Danny wants to share.”

“OK, Dan the Man,” said the teacher bravely, “You’re up!”

He walked shyly to the front of the room and held up his picture for all to see. The teacher shushed the class, on the alert for anyone about to laugh or make an inappropriate comment. He cleared his throat, pointed to the circle full of eyeballs, and announced, “I go on alien mothership.” To stunned silence, he pointed out other features on his picture. The flying saucer that took him to the alien mothership. The tentacled aliens with lots of eyes. The planets and stars he passed. Even the squishy alien worms he ate on the home planet (“Taste like chicken!”). It was all plainly there, and he spoke for a good 10 minutes. Then he concluded with, “De end.” You could have heard a pin drop. Then a voice in the back said, “Whoa. That’s… awesome!” The rest of the class erupted in praise and applause, to which Danny humbly bowed. When they quieted down, the teacher asked him, “So what did your mom and dad think about you going off with the aliens for the summer?”

He smiled that sweet, angelic Danny smile, said, “The aliens come to my house, and eat my mom and dad!” and laughed hysterically. The rest of the class joined in, because apparently having your parents eaten by aliens is hilarious to the 10-year-old mind.

Everybody learned something that day. The teacher learned that even though Danny might not excel in math or reading, he had an amazingly creative mind, and he had understood the assignment from the beginning. The rest of the class learned that while their classmate might talk and act a little differently, he was awesome. I learned that Danny has enormous potential (and that he will be no help at all if aliens try to eat me). And we all learned that this scary inclusion stuff is good for everybody.

Mother and son selfie

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