(adapted from our Feb. 2010 newsletter)
As we talk with parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their teachers, we are often asked a form of the following question: “Is it a good idea to share the student’s disability with his/ her classmates?” Teachers cannot share that information by law, as it violates the student’s privacy. Parents are often concerned the disclosure of the label will lead to bullying or teasing. And if a student is doing “fine”, why rock the boat, right?
As mothers of students with special needs ourselves, we consider our children’s developmental stage and self-awareness before deciding what information will be shared with whom and in what format. We encourage teams supporting students with autism to do the same.
Socially, we have found that children tease what they don’t understand. By taking the mystery out of the differences, we can begin to teach acceptance. Once we accept that the student’s limitations are not as a result of willful disobedience or failure to perform, we can start to foster empathy.
We have gone to schools before where there are a number of students in the same grade level with ASD. Some parents were willing to consent to disclose their child’s ASD, whereas others were not. In
those instances, when we come in to do a Peer Sensitivity Workshop (PSW), a couple of things happen:
- We are able to identify within minutes through observation who the other children on the spectrum are.
- As we interact with the typically-developing peers about autism, they ask about or comment on this classmate we suspect has ASD. Because we do not have parental consent, we will not discuss that child to maintain his or her privacy. However, it is important to note that many, if not all, of the children participating in the PSW have identified differences long before we came to teach them how to be good friends. And now instead of having their questions answered in a positive, caring atmosphere, they may be left wondering.
While we are not suggesting it is appropriate universally to divulge a child’s diagnosis, it is worthwhile for caregivers to do an honest cost-benefit analysis. In our opinion, it is better to start the discussion early so everyone is better equipped to be supportive.