The latest CDC report says that autism now affects 1 in 88 children in the United States. My kiddo resides firmly on the “one” side of that equation. His quirkiness is clearly visible to anyone who spends more than a few seconds in his company. So, especially when it comes to school, I believe that talking about my son with the other eighty-seven is one of the most important jobs I have as his parent. For one thing, if we don’t provide his classmates with a reason for his behavior, they are going to make up their own creative explanations, which may not be anywhere close to accurate [and probably not so nice]. I’m still learning the best ways to have those conversations, but my interactions with those other eighty-seven usually confirm my instinct that this openness, for us, is the right way to go.
Case in point: When he was starting first grade, my son was placed in a typical classroom, with a 1:1 aide. I wanted to make sure his new classmates – who knew nothing about his limited verbal ability, his sensory issues or his occasional outbursts – were introduced to him in a clear, concrete way. The special education teacher and I prepared a “sensitivity” training: when my son was out of the room, the teacher went in to explain how he was a little different (and how he was similar), what he did well and where he needed extra help, and why he might display some unusual behaviors. With my permission, the teacher made it clear that if they ever had any questions about him, they could ask her, or me, anytime.
When we got to school the next morning, I knew immediately that the presentation had made some impact. As my child and I walked toward the school from the parking lot, a group of his classmates ran up to the fence separating the playground from the street, calling out greetings to my son. Whoa. This had never happened before.
The kids ran along the fence, catching us as we got through the gate. After I facilitated some exchanges of “Hi” and “Good morning,” my son wandered off to play and I found myself surrounded by enthusiastic kids assaulting me with questions about him. But, my thoughtful preparations for first-grade level responses about ability and disability were useless in the face of their inquiries. What were the questions they were so eager to ask?
Does he have a pet?
What’s his favorite color?
Does he play video games?
Does he have any brothers and sisters?
What’s his favorite food?
The things these children most wanted to know were the things they’d never had a chance to ask my son directly. They were simply the questions that new friends ask each other.
Can you imagine the restraint I had to possess to keep from hugging every single one of those sweet, fabulous kids??
As the year went on, more questions would surface – often they would want to clarify how old he was (and most were shocked to hear he was one of the oldest in the class). One girl repeatedly asked if he’d been hit on the head as a baby, in an attempt to try to understand his delays. Another great kid was excited to teach my son how to play Blackjack – turns out, he had recently seen Rainman, and had a plan to make millions for the two of them once my kid learned how to count the cards.
Now, sure, my son has been the target of teasing. I have overheard some ignorant comments by kids (and a few adults) who don’t know what to make of my child. And, I know he will probably encounter some bullies – one recent study showed that students with autism are three times more likely to be bullied than their peers – but those experiences, thankfully, are not part of our story yet.
However, even now that he is in middle school, his typical peers continue to amaze me with their open-mindedness, compassion and creative ideas for how they can best interact with my child. They have taught me so much about how to introduce him to others – in positive ways, modeling acceptance and interest in those with differences.
Later in that first grade year, after a facilitated play date at our house, I thanked my son’s classmate for coming. But I added an apology – I wanted her to know that I understood how challenging it could be to play with him sometimes, and I really appreciated her effort.
She was quick to correct me: “It’s not hard to play with him. He’s my friend.”
That’s exactly what talking to the other eighty-seven is intended to inspire.
Photo credits: Pixabay.com