Talking to the Other Eighty-Seven

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. 1_OneinCrowdFor 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?

3_handsRaised

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.

5_friends

Photo credits: Pixabay.com

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6 comments

  1. Wendy Rosen · April 9, 2012

    This post made my heart smile! You are an amazing mom! What I really love about this is the simple fact that those original questions from the sweet first -graders really exemplify what we as humans instinctively want to do, which is find those things in which we have in common. It is important to discuss both (difference and commonalities), but I am convinced that in cases of prejudice and bullying, if we could find and celebrate something in common, it would be a stepping stone to celebrating our differences as well.

    • stayquirkymyfriends · April 9, 2012

      Beautifully said, Wendy! Thanks!

  2. Missy · April 9, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your stories. I have had those talks with Jayden, and he continues to ask questions. He is angry about being singled out and segregated in camp, but DDD won’t pay unless that 1:3 ratio is maintained. He wouldn’t even try any adaptive equipment suggested by his school OT because he didn’t want to look different from the rest of the kids. He wants me to take my “autism awareness” magnet off the car because he says that it is embarassing. This is by far the most difficult age for any kid, but worse for ours who constantly have the “special needs” sign above their heads wherever they go. We need to get together with the boys and catch up. Jayden told me yesterday that he hopes that B will be coming to his summer camp this year. 🙂

    • stayquirkymyfriends · April 9, 2012

      I know it is really tough for the kids who don’t want to be “special” and I think its too bad that we can’t figure out a way to frame learning differences in a way that takes out the embarrassment factor. Even though we’ve never needed to shy away from the “label,” I definitely had to learn not to talk about my kid’s challenges in front of him – he might be fairly non-verbal, but he can definitely let me know when he needs mom to shut-up-now! We definitely need to catch up….soooon!

  3. Tawnya Schoolitz · April 24, 2012

    I love the way you advocate for your son and in doing so, the other 87.

    • stayquirkymyfriends · April 24, 2012

      Thanks, T, that means a lot!

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