It took me forever to learn the importance of step 2. It was one of those cases in which you hear something, but don’t really understand it until you see it enacted. Here’s how I learned about step 2.
Martin attends a 5th grade class with his typically developing peers. He has support from a teacher who runs an autism-focused classroom. The teacher’s name is Mr. Lambertson, but everyone calls him Mr. L. Martin is new to his school this year. To help us feel welcome, Mr. L. emphasized that the school included several classrooms focused on non-typical students. The school not only has an autism classroom, but also classrooms for kids with special behavior issues, hearing impairments, and a more generalized special ed classroom. Kids from these classes participate in varying degrees in the typical classrooms, depending on what is best suited for them at any given time. That means, as Mr. L. emphasized with us, that children at Martin’s school have had lots of experience with kids who are not typical learners. They are used to being around kids with alternate forms of communication, behavior struggles, and learning issues.
While inclusion of kids with special needs was intended to make their educations better, it has also had the effect of enriching the lives of typically developing children. Kids in Martin’s classes are able to watch their teachers, who have been well trained and are great professionals, interact with kids on the spectrum. By watching Mr. L. and other teachers, the kids learn about the best ways to interact with Martin. They learn the best ways to befriend him. They also learn ways to help him if he is having trouble. When they interact with Martin, they are able to see the many good parts of him. And when they see his struggles, they have some tools for how best to respond.
Our neighborhood school does not have an autism classroom. Martin is bussed to a school about 20 minutes away. He’s been bussing the last four years and it never bothered me until I realized the truth of Mr. L.’s statement about the children at his school. Those kids have the opportunity to learn about the variety of ways that kids can have special needs. They get a chance to interact with kids with special needs regularly. They can become familiar with kids with special needs in a way that those kids’ struggles are just one part of a much bigger picture.
The kids in my neighborhood don’t have the chance to become familiar with kids on the spectrum. They don’t get to watch adults who can model best practices for these interactions. Therefore, when they meet Martin it is easy for them to see his troubles first. And it is not their fault that they have no idea how to respond. No one has taught them how.
Being someone who supports kids on the spectrum and their families has nothing to do with being nice. It has no relation to how friendly or ethical you are. Symptoms related to autism can be extremely difficult to deal with. They are befuddling. They make most people feel uneasy and confused. What most people need is extended exposure to folks on the spectrum. With time comes familiarity. With time comes the realization that focusing on your confusion or wallowing in uneasiness is not going to help. At that point, you can commit yourself to staying calm and trying to see the problem from the perspective of the person with autism. This is something the 5th graders at Martin’s school can do. They can do it because they see him everyday and they have learned to be comfortable with him on good days and bad.
So spend some time with folks on the spectrum. And just decide that you’re going to get over your confusion and unease. Just put that away. It’s not helping you. In fact, it’s blocking you from being a person who can be present to someone with autism, a person who might need you to be the one to take that extra step.