Autism in the Classroom
Fortunately, the economic rancor hasn't seemed to spill out into the classroom or onto the playground. Parents of autistic children like Peter Bell and educators like Rosemarie Young, immediate past president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, VA, say that playmates and classmates respond to autism's spectrum of symptoms with their own spectrum of inquisitiveness, awareness, kindness, and understanding. "If the principal has set the right tone for the school and the teacher has set the right tone for the classroom," says Young, "the children are very understanding and very accepting."
Each fall since Tyler Bell was in kindergarten, his dad or mom would visit his classroom, using age-appropriate language to explain what it's like to have autism. Kids would try to become experts, says Bell, and volunteer all manner of medical information. One child suggested that his father, a pharmacist, might have access to medicine that could help Tyler. Or they'd empathize -- drawing parallels between Tyler's behavior and, say, their own comportment in church (a typical comparison: Tyler makes loud noises at the wrong times, and sometimes so do I). Or they'd be observant and inquisitive. "They'd ask, 'Why does Tyler like to eat crunchy things so much?'" Bell recalls.
Those outreach efforts can pay big dividends. Tyler, now 12, switched schools last year, making him the new kid at Grand View Elementary School in Manhattan Beach, CA. The student council president, Blake Range, 11, made a particular effort to include Tyler, which touched and gratified Bell, although Range says he didn't do anything heroic. "When I first met him, Tyler was a bit insecure around other kids -- well, shy," he corrects himself. "So I just introduced myself to him and said if you ever need help, you can ask me." After a few weeks, Range says, Tyler opened up a bit: "He started talking a lot more around other kids and talking more to me too."
Tyler's mom had spoken to the class the first day of school, saying Tyler might wander during the middle of class, start talking at the wrong time, or jump out of line for no reason. "She said we weren't supposed to baby him, just tell him firmly to stop talking or get back in line," Range recalls. But Range and his friends found something that worked even better: math.
"Tyler really, really, really likes math," Range confides. "So when he starts to get hyper in line or something, we give him some math facts. We just go, what's 92 times 64? And then he's fine. Sometimes he spends his whole study hall just doing math facts."
Tyler isn't the first student at Grand View Elementary School to have autism -- there are others, though none had been in Range's class before, and he suspects Tyler won't be the last. "There's going to be more and more autistic people in the world," Range observes. "It's unfair to treat them any differently than you treat your friends."
The 11-year-old's particular brand of inclusion is one adults would do well to emulate as America begins to grapple with autism as a social issue. Most people now being diagnosed with autism are young children, still in the care of their parents and covered by strictures like IDEA. What happens when these children become adults who need housing, jobs, ongoing and by all estimates staggeringly expensive specialized medical care -- adults who need understanding and a fulfilling place in their communities? "Right now, autism is in the same boat as AIDS was in the 1980s. Eventually, AIDS became everyone's problem and we made a lot of advances," observes Bell. "Autism is no longer a problem that affects families. It's a problem that affects our entire society."
Tracy Mayor lives outside Boston with her husband and their two sons. She has written on a broad range of topics for Salon, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Brain, Child.
Copyright ? 2005. Reprinted with permission from the November 2005 issue of Child magazine. Reviewed and updated 2013.
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