The statistics are astounding. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released their findings that 1-in-68 children have autism spectrum disorder. This is an increase of 119.4% from 2000 when 1-in-150 children were noted as having autism. That makes autism the “fasting-growing developmental disability” (CDC, 2008).
My son received the official diagnosis in 2003. At that time, we were given a very grim outlook. He wasn’t speaking much – only a handful of words that weren’t consistently used functionally, more through echolalia. Eye contact was minimal and sensory overload-induced meltdowns were frequent. Then came the seizures. As much as we longed for answers, support, and even occasional moments of kindness and compassion, we were often met with roadblocks to therapy supports (multi-year wait lists, the dreaded “duplicative” and “not medically necessary” insurance fights), and even some of our closest friends and family members seemed to shy away from us and our son. They say it takes a village to raise a child. At the beginning, our village began to look like a foreign ghost town. It was a very isolating time.
The silver lining was that those who did surround us with a desire to truly know our son and support his developmental progress were some of the most amazing people we could ever wish to come into our lives: two occupational therapists (one outpatient, one school-based) and three teachers at his school who gave love without limits to comfort him, help both him and us to learn different approaches, hold up high standards for him, and never, ever let him forget that he had it in him to persevere – no excuses!
However, they went one step farther—they made it a point to acknowledge the realities of our son’s disability, and they also helped his peers understand not only what it was, but their responsibility in being a good classmate and friend to him. In kindergarten, his general and special education teacher asked us to come in and read a story to the class about a child who has autism and ways that other children can be understanding and kind friends. As I looked out at their faces—along with my son’s—I realized at that moment that teaching children how to show compassion and empathy is just as important in creating a better world for the future as is teaching them to add and subtract numbers. That day, my almost entirely non-verbal son made friends. I didn’t feel scared for him and alone. That day I was given tangible hope.
It is with that same uplifting and transformational spirit that I chose to incorporate autism awareness into my Kindergarten Community Learning Circle Class Connect at Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) for the week of April 2. April is Autism Awareness Month. Knowing that our school has students and siblings on the autism spectrum made this experience even more necessary. Even in a virtual school, these students still have many of the same challenges, like using verbal language to express their ideas and emotions and making friends. This week would be not only about identifying what autism is, but how we can be a good friend to those who have autism, especially in our virtual school environment.
We began our learning with an “I Can“ statement: I can be a good friend to someone with autism. That helped us to set the stage for our learning objective. Next we took some time to develop a KWL chart so that we could identify as a class what students already Knew about autism and what they Wanted to learn. The students’ learning coaches were present and very active assisting in this process, which made for a more fruitful individual and group discussion. While some students admitted that they knew nothing about autism, others shared that they knew that students with autism can be “very smart,” but also possess a hard time “making eye contact.” They understood that there was a spectrum to autism and that it can look different for each person. Furthermore, they understood that sensory issues and changes to routines can be very difficult for people with autism.
We followed that with a story titled, “My Friend with Autism“ by Beverly Bishop. The story provided some concrete examples of many difficulties children with autism may have, but also real and easy examples of how children can help through acts of understanding, kindness, and friendship.
Our students were also introduced to Julia, the new Muppet on Sesame Street who has autism. Through those videos they witnessed some real-life families who have a member with autism and learned how they love, play, and support their beloved family member. They also received examples of behavior they may encounter and how they can show patience, empathy, and kindness.
However, one of the most poignant real-world examples that came out of the lesson was when one of our kindergarten students disclosed to the group that he, in fact, has autism and experiences many of the same challenges with changes in routine and processing sensory stimulation. There is no better place to put into practice the skills that we are learning about friendship and inclusivity than in Community Learning Circles!
Our kindergarteners closed the week-long lesson by sharing what they Learned under the L portion of the KWL chart: They learned to be understanding, use less words to help communicate with a friend with autism and to have patience, and that we can play in different ways!
We can all learn a lot about friendship from the kindergarteners at WIVA. Just another inspirational day for me as a proud teacher at WIVA!