Yesterday my youngest turned seven. SEVEN! He is in First Grade, and every student is his class has an opportunity to be Star Student of the Week near the time of their birthday. He was instructed to make a poster about himself and present it to his classmates. He was also allowed to bring someone with him to help explain more about himself and his heritage. My son and I decided that this was the perfect time to explain to his classmates about Autism. Earlier this year we explained it to him for the first time, and he was glad to learn more about how his unique brain worked, and is now proud to share that information with other people.
I have long wanted to talk with my son’s class about Autism (let’s call him Josh), and that desire has increased as the school year progressed. Most of his classmates are very kind to him, but a few have started to notice and comment negatively on some of his behaviors. He struggles at times with peer interaction, so I thought maybe things would get easier for him if I explained more about his personality to the other children. This feeling was affirmed by an article I read at Pathfinders for Autism that stated, “If you’re the parent of a child with AS 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 my son’s classmates were more likely to be kind if they understood more about why he acted the way he did. And besides, as the article stated, “… children are never too young to learn that we’re all different and that we need to treat each other with patience, kindness and understanding.”
Earlier in the year, when I was first mulling this over, my husband had some concerns about making our son stick out by the way we approached the subject. I was almost afraid to bring it up now, worried he would say no. Turns out he simply hadn’t wanted me to show up and make a big spectacle of an Autism Awareness Day. We both felt that sharing about Autism in the context of other information about Josh while he was Star Student was more subtle, and that hopefully it would just be viewed as one aspect of his personality. After wanting to do this for so long I was thrilled that the right time had finally presented itself. I received permission from the teacher, gathered my thoughts, and I was ready to go! And I mean READY. I had pretty much known exactly what I wanted to say for over a year, in part because I had received some inspiration and tips from a talk given by the Executive Director of our local chapter of the Autism Society. She told us that every year she would go into her son’s grade school classroom and talk a bit about her son, his strengths, weaknesses, and how the other kids could help. She made sure to point out that even though her son was a little bit different, he also was just the same as the other students. As a result her son grew up surrounded by classmates who understood and supported him.
The morning of the talk I was nervous, but mostly excited. I was so glad to have the opportunity to help raise awareness of special needs and help children learn to be more accepting. I knew that this would be a tricky subject to discuss, and how important it was to get it right. I didn’t want to overplay my son’s unique abilities, and I also didn’t want to stigmatize him by pointing out his struggles. During my prep I needed to keep in mind that I had to deal with limited time and limited 1st grade attention spans. I was not able to talk in great detail about Autism in general, so I had to focus on how it specifically affected Josh. He has more characteristics of Asperger’s, so the words I used would not be as appropriate when discussing someone with classic Autism. I wish there had been more time to talk about all special needs and acceptance of disabilities in general, but I had to start somewhere. Here is what I told them:
I am Josh’s Mom, and I am very proud of Josh. He is a really cool kid! Josh is smart and funny and creative. He loves Pokémon and Angry Birds Star Wars and Legos and Mario. Josh is just like you.
Josh also happens to have a very unique brain, and the way it works is just a little bit different. For Josh, that difference is called Autism. But different isn’t bad, it’s just different.
Autism is name for a way the brain works that makes some people think, act, and feel a little bit differently than other people. For some people Autism makes it hard for them to talk, or they might be really sensitive to loud noises or bright lights. Today we are going to talk about the way Autism affects Josh. Some people call the kind of Autism that Josh has “Asperger’s”.
First of all, Autism can give some people like Josh really special strengths that are almost like superpowers. It can make them think in really unique, creative ways, and be really focused on what they find interesting. They can accomplish amazing things that a lot of people can’t. Many famous people had Autism. Some people think Albert Einstein had Autism, the famous composer Mozart, and Sir Isaac Newton, the man who first wrote the theory of gravity after seeing an apple fall. A lot of people know a well known person today with Autism named Temple Grandin, and there is even a movie about her! The man that created POKEMON even has Autism!
Do you remember Josh’s Pokémon Acts of Kindness poster? Using Pokémon was a really cool, different way of doing an that poster. I think maybe Josh did it in an unusual, cool way because the Autism helped him think a little bit differently and creatively. And did you notice when Josh read his poster on the announcements that he is a really good speaker and reader? He loves to perform in front of people. And he could read before he started Kindergarten. He is VERY smart. Plus even before he could read he could memorize a whole book after we had read it to him only one time.
Even though he is smart he sometimes he has to work really hard at paying attention. He has a lot of extra energy. I know you all have noticed that. Josh is also REALLY funny, but sometimes he has a hard time knowing when it is time to stop being silly. Sometimes we have to be patient with him and help him remember when to stop being silly. Josh has REALLY big feelings. He gets really excited. If he gets too loud it is okay to nicely ask him to be a little quieter. Sometimes he needs to be reminded.
Sometimes Josh also gets very sad or very frustrated. That might be because of his big feelings, or because he is tired from working so hard to pay attention. When he gets upset like that he isn’t trying to be mean, he is just having a little trouble. When he feels like that Josh could really use a friend. Don’t you need a friend when you feel sad or frustrated?
The things Josh touches feel a little different to him. He digs in the dirt because his brain is extra sensitive, and to him the dirt feels extra neat. Plus sometimes he does it because it helps him feel nice and calm. That is because sometimes it makes Josh really tired to work so hard to pay attention, so he needs a little bit of time by himself. If he plays alone instead of with you, it does NOT mean he doesn’t like you. It just might mean he needs a break, but he is still glad you are nearby. He loves to be with his classmates, and he loves to be asked to play. Sometimes he is playing by himself just because no one has asked him!
I am telling you all these things so that you can understand Josh better, and maybe you can help Josh. He has things that he is really good at, and he has things that are hard for him. But that is the same for ALL of us. Every single person is unique, and they have things that they are good at AND things that are hard for them. Josh is working really hard to be a good student and a good friend, and he really needs you all to be his friends. He wants you to ask him to play. He needs you to be patient with him when he gets too excited. When he gets sad or frustrated it would help him if you were kind to him to make him feel better. Those are ways that you can be a friend to Josh, but also to everyone. In this school it is always our job to be kind to ALL our classmates. We shouldn’t make fun of people who are different, or tell them they can’t play with us. Instead we need to always be paying attention and looking for ways that we can be a helper and be a good friend to each other. We can all help each other. We NEED to help each other. Each one of us is special and has things that make us different. And different isn’t bad, it’s just different!
The children piped up many times during the talk, sharing personal details, trying to ask questions, or commenting that they could relate to what I was saying (I will talk more about it in my next blog post). Sometimes it seemed like the kids I most wanted to listen were tuning me out, but you never know what they retain. When it was over at least three children had decided that they must have Autism too. Most everyone was smiling and they seemed to understand, and I had a feeling that it went very well. I then asked them, “Do you have any questions?” To my delight, the first one was, “Hey Josh, what is your favorite color?”
I walked to the back of the classroom and sat and watched as my son, my little shining star, talked to his classmates and happily answered their questions about normal stuff like Pokémon, shark’s teeth, and birthday cake. He is just like them, and just a little bit different. And different isn’t bad, it’s just different.
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