Monthly Archives: February 2014

We had “the talk”

Last night my 10 year old daughter and I were watching one of those house hunting shows. There was nothing spectacular about this one, they weren’t in any exotic locations or looking at million dollar homes. The couple was just an ordinary every day couple.

About halfway through my daughter turned to me and said “I’m confused mom. Are those guys friends or are they married or something?”

“They’re married honey.”

“Oh.”

I could see she needed a little more explanation so I decided to keep it basic.

“It’s pretty simple. Sometimes two men love each other, sometimes two women. Sometimes it’s a man and a woman, like Daddy and I. And we are lucky enough to live in a country where we can marry who we are in love with.”

“Ok.”

“Do you have any other questions about it?”

“Nope.”

And we turned back to the show.

And that is exactly how complicated it ever needs to be.

If everyone took that approach with their children for topics ranging from same-sex marriage to special needs, we would be raising an entire generation of people who accept differences as merely the things that make us unique. That’s the world I want to grow old in, and the one my children will grow into. An accepting, open world.

Start a Conversation

Social media is an interesting phenomena. Lots of bickering, mommy wars, and one of the best ways to keep posted on what’s happening in the world. And when that’s all overwhelming and too much, there are always the feel good stories. They pop up, get circulated around and everyone shares them to further spread the warm and fuzzies.

The latest one to get circulated is about a boy with challenges similar to autism who asked his mother not to have a birthday party for him because he doesn’t have any friends. Mom set up a Facebook page and the media picked it up and now he’s being inundated with birthday cards.

How heartbreaking that his mom needed to do something like that. I get it, I truly do as I share in her despair every day. Kids with autism face so many challenges that it just doesn’t feel fair to add a lack of friends on top of it all.

So many people got on board for this, that it seems like one of those heartwarming do-good, feel-good stories. Teachers were even getting their entire classes to create and send cards. Mom was even getting notices from the postal service that there was too much mail!

But…after a friendless card-opening party with his mom, that boy will go back to his lonely existence. Neither your life nor his will be any better.

So I’m sending a big ‘ol shame on you to all of you who shared the story and/or sent a card. Yes I said shame on you. Because you all saw a feel-good story. Some of you even spent the $5 to buy a card and a stamp. And you all patted yourselves on the backs for a job well done and went on with your lives.

Nothing has actually changed. Tomorrow that boy will wake up and still face the prospect of going to school and not exchanging a single word with his classmates. If he’s really lucky a teacher might ask him about what he did last night, but more likely he or she will only direct him about his schoolwork.

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, you should be using this as an opportunity to talk to your kids about exclusion and loneliness. How inviting everyone but “that” kid to your party or giving out a valentine to everyone but “that” kid is causing very real harm. Kids with special needs can’t help their behaviour, and if it seems odd to you then you need to learn to get over it.

If you don’t know how then ask. As a parent, I would much rather be asked by a child or a parent about how to interact with my son than for him to be ignored and ostracized. If you are too uncomfortable to ask me, then ask a teacher. If you’re the teacher and you don’t know, ask your SERT, or me, or call the special education expert at the board.

Please notice that I said “interact.” I did not say “fake friendship with.” Pretending to be someone’s friend when you really aren’t only causes harm to both people and frankly they don’t need you in their life. I’m talking about basic human interaction. A conversation. Try starting one. You might be surprised at what you discover.

In fact, as parents and teachers, you should be modeling this for your children. What’s stopping you from having a conversation with a lonely person? You all know someone. Whether they are a freak, a geek, a loser, a senior, someone with physical, developmental, or mental disability; you all know at least one lonely person.

To really, truly make a difference in the world, you need to speak to these people.

And saying “Hi” only barely qualifies for good manners. I mean truly have a conversation. If you’re Canadian then complain about the weather with them. If you’re not, then comment on something in the news. Ask them how they’re doing. And wait for an answer. Be patient. If they are truly a lonely person then they aren’t used to being spoken to like that. They might be caught off guard or need to formulate an answer. Whatever it is, it’s not likely to be what you were expecting. And it will be worth it.

Your conversation doesn’t have to be an hour long marathon to count. Just a few minutes while waiting in line for coffee or while waiting for the bus or while waiting to go inside after the recess bell. Just long enough to connect with someone who is desperate for that connection.

Do it daily. It doesn’t even have to be the same person. And you never know, you might actually like someone you didn’t speak to before.

And when you are doing that regularly, and only then, can you pat yourself on the back for a job well done, a difference made in someone’s life.

Let’s see how many people you can engage in conversation:
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Social Inclusion at School

I follow a an amazing blog, Diary of a Mom, probably one of the most thoughtful and insightful bloggers about autism that I have ever encountered. Currently she has been posting a lot about transitioning her daughter to a new school next year, and is questioning how inclusion is done in her experience.

All of her posts are worthy of reading, but this one in particular is phenomenal. My favorite quote from it is:
“But above all, we want to ensure that we’re not engaging in symbolic inclusion at her expense. That we’re giving her opportunities for the real connections and real relationships that she so obviously craves.”

For years, we have worked very hard to have a supportive team for our son. Yet his social life is very lacking. His classmates haven’t invited him to a party in years. The one that was playing online games with him and having the odd play date with him has chosen NT kids to hang around with instead.

The parents are worse. One went so far as to turn her back to me while speaking with all the other moms at a field trip.

A few months ago, he told me that most days he only talks to the grown ups at school. He often doesn’t say more than “Hi.” to his classmates and they to him.

In that kind of environment, how can his social skills possibly grow?

To again quote from that same post, “Geographical inclusion is not inclusion.”

The answer is clear: he needs to be in a social environment of his peers. Not a large group of NT peers, but a smaller group of other children with similar challenges. And facilitated social interaction, led by someone who truly knows how to teach them to interact.

If only it were that easy though. In our area, the only chance at a public education like that is to put him in an ME (multiple exceptionality) class. If we could find a space. But as a gifted student, that would not be the best fit. Maybe we could put him in the gifted program. If we could find a suitable method of transporting him there. And if we could get a guarantee of some EA support.

If we could find a local private school that suits our needs, and if it fit in our budget that might work too. So far, our research has only turned up one, and we question the appropriateness of it after conversations with the mothers of at least three different former students. I’m not interested in putting myself in the path of a lawsuit for not following the rules, or choosing to go elsewhere.

That’s a lot of “if’s”, with no real solution. Yet. As a mom of a child with autism, I will always keep looking, keep trying and keep hoping.

I have been told by two separate families that the local high school is well equipped and the SERTs are phenomenal. But again, will we just be including him for the sake of inclusion? Will he truly get the social supports that he needs. Or will he be cast adrift, forever on the outside. Always looking in the window but without the keys to get inside?

And then reality sets in…

We know that our eldest child, the one who has autism, really doesn’t have any friends. Honestly he has just one. A boy, very similar to himself whose family we know. It’s very unfortunate that they do not go to the same school and only see each other some weekends.

But knowing he has issues with social interactions and seeing for myself are two completely different things.

The other night I watched him for a few minutes in his hip hop class. He has come a long way, following along and not getting overwhelmed by the music and moving mass of kids. He impressed me with his dance moves. Watching that part of the class, and you would never know… yet it was impossible for me not to notice him in the downtime, the moments of instruction or waiting his turn.

He stood to the side. Looking at anything but the other people. Staring into space. Not as relaxed as he tried to appear. Apart from the others.

It was a small moment, but it pierced me. I began to question the wisdom of putting him in the class. He enjoys it but does not love it. We want him to have these opportunities but I wonder, at what cost to him? How much does he understand? We know that the older he grows, the more he “gets” it, but I honestly don’t know how he feels about it.

Some days he talks about wishing he had more friends, more people to hang out with on the weekends. But most of the time, he operates without seeming to need that social connection.

It breaks my heart every time we do something as a family and he hangs back, chilling in his room or the basement. I know that to a point that is stereoptypical teenage behaviour but still… I want to connect more with him.

And seeing him in a group of age-peers like that, standing to one side, not connected with any of them, drives it home. That he does not connect on a level that we understand. No matter how much we can wish it away, or try to change it, that is who he is. It will never diminish our love for him.