Monday, January 30, 2012

What's in a name?

Indeed, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, as William Shakespeare's love-struck Juliet surmised. But have you ever tried to cultivate roses?  They're a fussy flower (at least in Wisconsin's corner of the gardening universe).  So if Juliet had cared for her rose bushes in the same manner as her hardy mums, she might be rather disappointed come spring.  In fact, her sweet roses would be thorny, dead sticks standing barren in defiance of warmer days.

The point is that if we do not name a rose accordingly, we will not know how to care for it properly.  We'll neglect its special needs for lack of understanding.  It is the same with children with differently-wired brains.  We can pretend all we want that diagnoses don't matter.  We can insist that all children are special and show them that flowers have varying blooms.  But without specific instruction and correct terminology, they'll unintentionally mistreat the plant.

Ignoring autism in the classroom is as misguided as ignoring roses in the garden.  Look not at names and diagnoses as restrictive labels, but as descriptors that bring to mind a specialized set of skills for instruction and interaction.  People with epilepsy have a differently-wired brain, but I wouldn't use the same skill set in modifying curriculum for someone impacted by seizures as I would for someone impacted by autism.  And students with ADHD have different reasons for their difficulty in attending to instruction than students with autism do.  Neuro-typical peers socializing with a friend with epilepsy may not have to change their means of communication, but they likely will when connecting with a classmate with autism.

See what I mean? Using proper terminology with children of any age is a way to share a common language and attach common definitions.  Certainly, in the case of autism spectrum disorder in particular, those definitions may change over time.  (Just wait for the DSM-5 to be released!)  But if we're all on the same page equipped with the same lexicon, then we can treat one another with the respect and understanding we each deserve.

And if you need any help establishing that lexicon, Good Friend, Inc., is here to serve!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Inclusion: It Isn't Just for Families Anymore

I adore Paula Kluth.  Before this starts to sound like a weird stalker post, let me give you some Kluth-isms to provide an evidence basis for my declaration so you can join the club:
-  "Inclusion isn't a place. It's the work that we do."
-  "Dwell in possibility." (borrowed from Emily Dickinson, but applied to successful educational inclusion, therefore a Kluth-ism)
-  "Don't stop trying 15 minutes before the magic [of meaningful inclusion] happens."
Plus, she's from Wisconsin.  I'm just sayin'.
The point is that Paula's positivity is inspiring.  She's full of best practices and classroom-tested differentiations that make learning fun and accessible for students of all abilities.  She practices and promotes inclusion.

Inclusion is vital in our communities.  Not just in our homes as families who care for someone with autism or another diff-ability, but also in education (whenever possible -- and Paula and her colleague Patrick Schwarz would likely argue it's always possible!), in the workforce, and in recreation and leisure opportunities.

Even before a child gets an autism spectrum diagnosis, families are often making accommodations (consciously or without even realizing it) to include their child in household happenings and outings.  We may bring a particular food item or some fidget toys when visiting relatives; or arrange our schedule around a favorite TV show; or closely monitor the weather to decide what activities would be best suited to our loved one with autism's quirks.

Many administrators and educators (not necessarily in Wisconsin, where the Department of Public Instruction supports the inclusive educational model) have not been trained properly in the inclusion of students with special education needs in classrooms.  They may adopt a practice that looks more like mainstreaming, where the student with an IEP is in the regular education classroom, but is lacking the curricular or instruction modifications that would make for a truly inclusive experience.  Perhaps the peers in the class didn't receive any training either, which makes social exchanges awkward at best and non-existent (or damaging) at worst.

If we want to prepare today's students for the increasingly integrated future of work and play, then we as parents and professionals need to model acceptance, inclusion, and flexibility.  It doesn't have to be expensive or complicated, but it does have to be prioritized and open-minded.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Silence of Our Friends

As we were doing the research for our middle school film, Choosing To Be a GFF, we noticed a heart-breaking trend.  Typically-developing students who were friends with a child with special needs in elementary school treated their differently-abled peer as if he or she were invisible in the great chaos of blending friends in middle school.  From the point-of-view of the "regular education" adolescent, this new school was not a time to stand up and stand out, but a time to take a big step back and decide who was going to be included in the new friendship mix.  Reaching over to draw in a child from the "special education" co-hort took a measure of character that had not yet developed.

Yet from the point-of-view of the student with a disability, he or she was rejected at a time when social support was most needed.  This new school was bigger and less predictable, and the only thing he or she figured was reliable was the smile of a long-time buddy.  How awful when that buddy chose to cast her eyes down when her friend with Asperger's passed in the hallway; or when that pal kept his hand in his pocket when his friend with Down Syndrome lifted his for a high-five.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a favorite quote of his rings in my ears: "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Sometimes that silence is the reason for a friend's feeling of rejection. Perhaps that friend saw disability harassment taking place right in front of him, and he chose to remain silent. Maybe that friend could have offered a word of encouragement when her friend ran by in tears, but decided that was too risky. And maybe that silence caused a child with special needs to despair of his or her own life.

Were Dr. King alive today, I'm sure he would see that America's battle with discrimination on the basis of disability is the frontline of inequality in education and the workforce.  And he would have a dream ...