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. Continue reading