Every generation comes to a cross roads of needing to re-examine our definitions of equality, inclusion, love, freedom, forgiveness. Many have paved the way for us to have the freedoms we so easily take for granted today. I thank those trailblazers that did the heavy lifting to ensure my boys have access to early intervention programs today. I appreciate the awareness that has been raised and has allowed my boys to receive the treatments and therapies that they need in order for them to function in our society.
Due to the awareness that has been raised, we are fortunate to have special events and programs that are tailored to children with Special Needs. When my sons were diagnosed with Autism and I was unsure of what the journey would be like, I felt relief to be able to find programs that were exclusively for children like them. Being in these environments always made me feel safe and accepted. It is always more comforting being around others that are going through similar experiences. Although it is important for my boys to have a solid support system that accepts them for who they are, it is equally as important that they learn how to navigate through life in environments that are not specifically designed for them.
My oldest son just turned 7 years old and since he was 3 years old he has expressed an interest in the Solar System and going to Outer Space. As his mother I feel compelled to do whatever is in my power to help him achieve this dream. As we forge ahead into our journey to space, and attempt to integrate them in programs; we are faced with unwelcome stares, rude comments, and other obstacles.
Most recently, the boys attended a program that was not specifically for children on the spectrum. It was the first time that we were going to try and integrate with neuro-typical children. Since it was a new program, the boys had some difficulty adjusting. This is common in children on the spectrum whenever they are trying something new. Due to their difficulty adjusting, we were asked by the program director to drop the program. He very openly shared that other parents had complained about the boys’ loud behavior in the class. We have faced unwanted stares and comments before; however, this is the first time we faced blatant discrimination. Being told your child is not welcome somewhere is one of the most hurtful experiences. I am sure as you read this paragraph; you are probably feeling my pain. You may even wonder where this program is located and who this program director is so that you can give him a piece of your mind. My purpose in sharing this story is not to outrage you. I share because I want to make you aware that there is still more work to be done and we all own a part of it.
As parents of children with Special Needs we are the bridge between their world and the rest of the world. Although we have made much progress in advocating for their rights, there is still much more work that needs to take place to create an equal and inclusive playing field. In order to create this inclusive world we must play a dual role. First, we must continue to push our children to overcome their own limitations. We need to identify their strengths and potential regardless of their diagnosis and help them to achieve all that they can. More importantly, we must teach them to accept themselves regardless of how other people perceive and receive them. Rejection is tough, and we don’t control how others feel about us and our kids. What we do control is how we feel about ourselves, and how we fill our kids up with as much love and kindness so that they are full of self-esteem and able to face and overcome adversity.
The other part of our role is to keep pushing society to think differently and accept differences. Autism Awareness must focus on more than just “finding a cure” and trying to point the finger at what is causing the prevalence of this diagnosis. We cannot change their diagnosis, but we can certainly change the way we see their diagnosis and their abilities. We can change our approach on how we are including them in our society. It is no longer enough to have separate Autism specific programs. Our kids should not have to live on the sidelines of our society. They should be welcome in any environment and be given the opportunity to succeed.
We will need more collaboration from all community members. We need parents, family members, neighbors, educators, community leaders, politicians, business owners, and employers to come to the table ready to explore solutions that are going to help us move to a more integrated approach. Preparing our kids for their future begins today. Integration starts today. If their first experience with integration is when they get a job, how do we expect them to succeed? Starting to integrate them into programs today teaches them important life skills that will eventually be essential in the workplace and life. By including them in community outings, sports, and all of the other programs that their neuro-typical peers attend, they will learn skills like impulse control, taking turns, listening, focusing, teamwork, recalling information, following direction, problem solving, etc. Having them involved in these programs early also allows them to learn from their peers, and allows their peers to learn from them and become more inclusive earlier on.
I hope this article will help us to push this dialogue forward and move beyond the debates of causation. We don’t have to wait until the pieces fit; the pieces do fit. We just need to understand how the pieces connect. It’s time to become aware, it’s time to become inclusive, it is time to start building bridges.