After my son was first identified as Autistic* 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.
My son 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. (It also helps if you do it in a voice like Matt Smith’s Doctor when he said, “Bowties are COOL!” And yeah, I totally made this meme.)
I once read these words, “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 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 presentation given by the Executive Director of our local Autism Society chapter, who had talked with her own son’s classmates when he was in school. She felt that it was important to share with classmates about strengths first, then weaknesses, and then involve the other children by stating ways that they could help.
Taking that into account, my son and I first shared with his classmates about Autism when he was in 1st grade. We did it again when he was in 2nd, both times in conjunction with his Star Student presentation. Any time I discuss Autism it is with his permission and his input, and he is proud to talk about his “special brain.” We wanted to show that Autism was just one of the many things that makes him interesting (if you want to read the script I used you can click here, “The Star: Telling classmates about Autism”). We made sure to point out that even though my son was a little bit different that was okay, because 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 he 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 him stay organized, calm him when frustrated, and even defend him. One dear girl became quite angry when she heard him 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.” Another got really excited for World Autism Awareness Day, and didn’t understand why the names of all the Autistic children in the school weren’t mentioned on the morning announcements.
These children celebrate and accept my son for who he is, and together with their families have joined Team Ninja. They rally behind us and run this wild race with us, and they even literally ran with us at a local Autism Society event. The joy we feel to be surrounded by their love at events like that, and every day, is overwhelming.
Partway through my son’s 3rd grade year the opportunity to share about Autism had not yet presented itself. When I finally mentioned it to his 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 bring up 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 my son.
At the last minute a Substitute teacher was brought into the classroom who had not yet been informed of my son’s IEP accommodations. The collaborative Exceptional Education teacher later shared with me that when she arrived in the class she noticed the Substitute repeatedly redirecting him to stop moving around. Just as the ExEd teacher was about to explain to the Substitute that he required certain accommodations, the STUDENTS spoke up instead. The ExEd teacher 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 him.” 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 him 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 my son. Thanks to a caring group of students a day that could have been potentially frustrating for him turned into a GREAT day instead. His 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 at the top of this article (and all the images of children are shared with their permission and their parents’ permission), and I feel blessed that they and other incredible children have consistently supported and befriended my son 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.
Note: *Autistic is a word that my son, and an increasing number of individuals, uses to describe his unique neurological identity.It is called “Identity-First” language and is not disrespectful.
(Thank you to “The Mighty” for featuring a version of this story!)
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