Today I had the great opportunity to talk to H’s grade primary class about Autism.
To prep for the visit I had reached out to my Facebook friends who are parents to ask what they would like their kids to know about Autism. Many who responded asked me to post about my visit, so I thought I’d share the details of my “presentation” to his little 5 and 6 year-old buddies!
My friend Carly, who has a son with Autism in grade one, provided me with an incredible activity for the kids (one she has used when visiting her son’s classes the past two years) and some resources that could be sent home for parents.
H’s teacher introduced me to the class, and they were all really excited to meet H’s mom. It was really wonderful to chat with all the friend’s H had told me about, and to get to know them a bit better. They were all interested in me as well, one little friend inquired about my age and deemed me to be around 99. After the week I’ve had, I felt this was a fair estimate.
We started right away with the exercise. I had brought a large roll of paper. On the paper I had a number of different columns where I wrote some of the things that made H who he was:
- Loves pasta and pizza
- Likes playing sports
- Enjoys swimming at the beach
- Plays with lego
- Has a sister
And more. In the middle of the sheet I had written, “has Autism”.
I read out all of the different things H loved, but left out the “I has Autism” column. The kids were each given three post-it notes. They wrote their names on it, and then selected three activities/things that they also enjoyed. One everyone was done, they all sat down and we held up the sheet. I wrote H’s name on three post-its and placed them under “plays sports” (cause basketball is a HUGE thing right now) and “loves pasta”. I turned to the class and said, “I’m going to put this last sticky note here, under ‘Has Autism'”. Of course this was the only sticky note under this column.
“Look at all of these columns,” I said to the group. “You all are the same in so many ways!”
I then pointed to the “Has Autism” column, “This is one thing that makes H different from you. There are so many things that you share with H, but there is one thing that makes you different.”
The kids were really interested to learn about what Autism meant. So, H’s Learning Centre teacher sat them in the reading corner and she read the book, “My Friend with Autism”. It’s a great book, although the part where the book explains that the kids can’t “catch” Autism always makes me cringe. The book comes with colouring pages, that H’s teacher is preparing to send home in a binder with one child a night, so that they can sit with their parents/caregivers and talk about Autism and colour a page, placing it in the binder that will eventually be given to H to show him that his friends are supportive of who he is, and what makes him so great.
The book talked about some of the challenges H faces in his environment, such as sensory issues; like an aversion to loud noises, difficulty handling bright lights, and struggling sometimes to put his thoughts into words.
The best thing that happened after reading the book is that one kid said, “Now WE have a friend with Autism!” and everyone said, “Yah!!!”. Then another boy looked at his friend and said, “We’re not the same either!”.
What really hit me during this visit, was how prepared the kids were to have this talk. That their teacher had taken the time to talk to them about differences, about kindness and the meaning of equality. This resonated in the way the kids approached their questions to me, and how kind they were when referencing some of H’s behaviours in the classroom. They were not demeaning when they referenced these differences, but rather empathetic and curious. And curious is a completely great thing to be!
After reading the book, I referenced some sections and talked about how H identified with some of the points raised in the book, and then I asked them if they had any questions. They had some really good ones, and in another post I’ll try to recall them and provide my answers.
H’s teachers were wonderful in helping me prepare a package that we could send home to parents. It included a letter from me, and a handy (OMG I am so old now that I use the word “handy”) guide to talking to your kids about Autism. This guide is really great, and includes ways that typical kids can support their buddies with Autism.
Here is the letter I sent home with parents:
Dear Parents of xxxx Class:
My name is Ally, I’m the mom of H one of your child’s classmates.
H is six years old. He loves cooking with his Dad, playing with his toy characters (all kinds!), playing basketball, soccer and street hockey, watching movies (Inside Out is his current favourite) and reading books.
H also has Autism Spectrum Disorder, which means that his day at school likely differs a bit from the day your child experiences. H spends some time in the Learning Centre to work on some skills that he needs support with, and he also gets support from the classroom “helpers”.
Today, I came into Ms. xxxx classroom to talk to the kids about Autism. xxxxx amazing Learning Centre teacher, Ms. xxxx, joined me for this chat. We spoke to the kids about what Autism meant, and specifically, what it meant for H.
My husband xxxx and I wanted to send a note home to parents to talk about this chat, and to share with you what we talked about with the kids and also provide some resources that you might find helpful in talking to your kids about how everyone is different.
Today we focused on how all brains work differently, and that kids with Autism have really special brains that give them incredible strengths, but also provide some challenges. Some of these challenges include:
- Sensory issues: Lots of kids with Autism struggle with noise volume and bright lights. These are things that H has to manage all day in addition to learning from Ms. xxxx. It makes him really tired, and this is why “helpers” sometimes take him for extra breaks in the learning centre. There he can regroup and return to the classroom.
- Transitions: Sometimes kids with Autism get super focused on what they are doing. They are really interested in reading a book, or having lots of fun being silly and moving on to the next activity can be very tough for them to understand. This is why H’s helpers often use a “countdown” or a timer with him to help him understand that the next transition or activity is just a couple of minutes away. This lets H understand that a transition is about to happen.
- Directions: Directions can be really tough for H to comprehend. Especially if there is more than one direction. His brain needs some time to understand each direction, which is why he gets frustrated sometimes in class or on the playground when his friends are playing games with a lot of rules.
H loves his friends in his class. He can point to each one of his friends in the class photo and tell me what they like and what they play at recess or after lunch. H wants to play and have fun like all of the other kids, but the tough thing is that sometimes he struggles with understanding the rules of the game, or comprehending a conversation that is happening really quickly. Here are some ways you can talk to your child about helping out a friend who might think differently than they do:
- Be Patient. Some friends need a bit of extra time to understand what you are asking, or may need help with understanding the rules of the game you are playing.
- Be kind. When you see a friend looking sad or frustrated, it might be because they are having a hard time finding their words to say how they are feeling, or they may not be able to find a way to ask you if they can play as well. Always remember that while H might not be able to communicate all his thoughts the same way you’re able to, he does understand everything you say. Words matter and he gets hurt feelings just like everyone else!
- Be inclusive. H wants to play at recess or after lunch just like all the other kids. Invite him to play with you on the playground, he loves to have fun!
- Be curious. It’s ok to have questions about H, and how he communicates differently. It is always ok to ask a teacher for help if you don’t understand what H is asking/saying. They can help you and H figure out the best way to play.
As well, here are some great, progressive pages to follow:
One of my favourites is Diary of a Mom; she raises two daughters, one with Autism and one who is typically developing. Her philosophy on parenting both her daughters is so inspirational: http://adiaryofamom.com/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Diary-of-a-Mom/
The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism: Some really great posts here, makes you think differently about disabilities and what we have previously thought about Autism https://www.facebook.com/thinkingpersonsguidetoautism/
And this was a great article in the Globe and Mail recently: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/to-help-my-child-with-asperger-syndrome-i-need-to-look-through-her-eyes/article28185297/
I was so happy to be able to chat with the kids today. H has some great friends! I understand that autism is a big topic for them to understand, so never hesitate to touch base with me if you have any questions.
So there you have it! A brief overview of my awesome chat with some even more awesome kids!