The web has been buzzing over a vile incident involving a 15-year-old with autism in Bay Village, Ohio. A group of teens asked him over to their house, purportedly to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge geared toward raising money for the disease. Instead, as the teen stood in a driveway in his underwear, a bucket full of urine, fecal and spit was dumped onto him from the roof. The boy’s mother, Diane, discovered a video of what happened on her son’s cell phone. Police say that the group of teens who committed it could face delinquency chargers. The parents released the video, hoping to raise awareness about bullying.
People have been justifiably horrified, with many speaking out against bullying. Last Friday evening, his community held a rally with people holding signs such as “No room for hate.” Comedian Drew Carey has offered $10,000 in reward money to help find out who was behind the incident. All over social media, people have denounced what happened.
As horrific as this assault was for this teen and his family, as extra-upsetting as it is to those of us who have kids with special needs, the outpouring of support has been heartening. Still, it’s sad that it takes a shocking incident like this for people to spread the word that people with special needs deserve respect. If that were to occur regularly, though, events like this could be avoided. Not entirely, of course, because there will always be rotten apples. But if kids were raised to treat peers with special needs as their equals, children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other special needs would be less subject to derision, exclusion and bullying.
This isn’t just about making sure kids with special needs are included in school’s anti-bullying messages; this is about parents talking with their kids about children and adults with special needs from a young age, so children grow up with that equality mindset.
Here’s a challenge for parents to take. It involves no icy water, just a willingness to help kids understand the diversity of people that exist in this world, and to talk about it with them.
• Explain to your child how everyone has differences, and that some kids and adults have ones that are more visible—and that different is OK.
• Point out even though a child may act, speak, walk or talk in a non-typical way, in many ways they are like other children: ones who like to play, laugh, eat ice-cream, read bedtime stories…you know. That they feel happy and sad, just like they do. That they are kids.
• Help make kids aware of the ability in disability, and that everyone has their own kind of talents. If you do not have any kids or adults with special needs in your circle, google images of Special Olympics athletes—a good conversation starter. Or poke around blogs by parents of kids with special needs to help your child get a sense of what our children can do.
• Discourage the use of the words “retard” and “retarded,” which perpetuate negative stereotypes of people with disability. (If you don’t get what’s so wrong with them, watch this video.)
• Make this an ongoing conversation, just as parents regularly talk with kids throughout childhood about race, ethics and other all-important topics. Encourage them to ask you questions.
• Bridge the gap that can exist at parks, playgrounds, parties, when kids may be hesitant to approach a child with special needs. Encourage interaction. Tell them to just say “Hi,” as they would with any child.
I hope you’ll take this challenge. It’s not just for the sake of kids like my son—it’s for the benefit of your child, too. Teach your child to welcome and respect people with special needs and you will raise a better human being.
Tempting as it might be, stop trying to read the child’s mind. Consider what the next level of communication might be and expect that…expect the child to respond in a way that just a bit more difficult than [his or] her current means of communication.
I always try to keep that in mind when I talk to Norrin. He’s been much more expressive and so now I expect a little more each time we talk.
Here are my 6 simple rules for prompting conversation with my son:
Set the mood. Make sure your child is relaxed and ready to talk. Turn off all distractions so they can focus on you. And give yourself at least 10 – 15 minutes to commit to giving them your full attention. Go for a walk in the neighborhood and talk about what you see. Sit at the table while they are having an afternoon snack. I like talking to Norrin right before bed. He’s had his bath, he’s winding down and open to talking.
Keep it simple and specific. Don’t go into a whole monologue and/or fire off a bunch of questions. Use simple language and ask them one specific question at a time.
Follow up. Conversations are all about the follow up question. Build your conversation based on the answers your child provides.
Be patient and wait for response. Some kids need a few minutes to digest the question and think about the answer. So wait a minute or two.
Repeat and/or rephrase the question. If you’ve asked a question and too much time has passed. Ask again. If you have to ask a third time, rephrase the question. If they need help, provide two choices or use pictures and have them point.
Look for inspiration. There is inspiration everywhere. Show them a picture of something fun you did together and ask your child about it. Sometimes I’ll point out something as we’re walking around the neighborhood and ask him to tell me about the specific object.
It really doesn’t matter what you talk to your child about. The important thing is to take the time to talk to your child and get them into a back and forth dialogue. And with each conversation, always expect a little bit more.
Back to school is always a hectic time of year (understatement alert). But when you have a kid with special needs it can be even more of a challenge, especially if you have a child who doesn’t like changes in routine. I’ve found that getting Max a new backpack or some other new school item early in August helps; it gets him psyched, and it comforts him to know he’s prepared. I asked Facebook parents of kids with special needs what makes the return to school go more smoothly for their kids and them. Their strategies:
• Get back into a routine. ”I start the routine two weeks prior, bedtime and morning wake-up. I let him pick out his new lunch box and pack up his school supplies and pick his first day of school outfit. I drive him to school to re-introduce it for familiarity.”—Amy S.
• Keep it visual. ”We do a monthly schedule color-coordinated for each of the four kids, and now a color for the dog! Kids and I like to see what’s ahead and what we get to look forward to.”—Nancy B.
• Two words: “Online shopping!”—Maria K.
• Build excitement. “A giant wall calendar shouts the term ‘starting day’ and conversation touches on the new teachers and responsibilities.”—Dave W.
• Get some teacher scoop. “It helps to have a hint of what the coming year will bring. Some inkling of who this teacher is, into whose hands I’m about to place my child’s well-being and education…. I’m in a state of horror as I know none of that yet!”—Barbara H.
• Practice homework to build confidence. “We do some ‘school’ work from workbooks every day to reinforce what he already knows!”—Amy S.
• Know that it will get better. ”My son actually does a lot better during the school year. He gets bored at home, and begins cycling through his preferred activities at a much faster rate. But adjusting to change is never easy for him. I expect to see increased frustration and aggression during the first few weeks of school. Knowing that situation will improve as he becomes more comfortable in school makes it easier to deal with a change in behavior.”–Regan B.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at Atypical Familia.
When Norrin was first diagnosed with autism, I didn’t know anything about the diagnosis or navigating the special needs system. I was able to talk to friend of a friend who was a speech therapist. She provided the emotional support I needed and helped me better understand the process. A few years later, her son was diagnosed with autism. She called me up crying and I gave her the support she needed.
Being a special education professional doesn’t always make the diagnosis easier to accept or understand.
Earlier this month, I got to ask Mama Fry a few questions:
What did you know/think about autism when you were a special education teacher?
Not nearly enough. I haven’t been in a classroom for about 9 years now and much has changed. Back then it was more about getting kids to be all the same or “normal” rather than celebrating and tapping into their skill sets.
How did you advise autism/special needs parents?
My area was vocational training. I was thinking past school. Getting them ready for what real life job situations might happen. Most of my conversations with parents then was problem solving behaviors or trying to figure out accommodations that would suit their kid best.
What was it like when your son was diagnosed?
Surreal. It absolutely never occurred to me that he might have autism. I thought it was a speech delay and that’s it. I was truly gobsmacked. I had recently stopped working outside the home because working with autism was burning me out. Surprise! It came to live with me instead.
How have you changed since?
I understand how each kid is just so different. My son is not just a name on a page to me. He’s my heart. I can’t punch out at the end of a shift. Behaviors are communication not just non compliance.
What advice would you give to special ed teachers who don’t have special needs kids?
Ask about what’s going on at home. Sleep is a huge factor. Eating too. Realize the student you have, their behaviors could be based on those two things a lot. Ask what concerns the parents the most. Share what’s working in class.
On Friday, President Obama signed the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act into law (Autism CARES). It dedicates $1.3 billion over five years to various autism causes: $950 million is earmarked for research grants; $110 million will go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue researching the prevalence of autism disorders; and $340 million will go to early detection, education and intervention.
The new law also tasks the government with examining and anticipating needs for teens who are aging out of school-based support and transiting into adulthood; a study will be commissioned to examine the improvement and cost-effectiveness of transition and adult services. The Autism CARES Act reauthorizes (and renames) the existing Combating Autism Act that has invested more than $1.7 billion in autism research, treatment, training and services.
Obviously, the new act is a big deal, and a Good Thing. I have a child with cerebral palsy, and wish there were funding like this for his condition. Still, I know many parents of kids with autism who believe money for treatment and services should be key—and dollars spent researching the causes, less so. They are weary of the constant stream of studies on the factors that contribute to autism. As one mom said, “What would I rather see instead of all this research focus on prevention? Help for those living with this right now!”