Monday, December 19, 2011

Ability Awareness - Part 1 - Building Peer-Advocacy

As we continue our series on Bullying, I wanted to share this success story with you. This story is a great example of how to foster peer-advocacy for children with special needs. The author of this piece is Shelly, a friend of mine from our local Special Needs Parents group. Shelly is a former teacher (Kindergarten, 4th and 5th grades) and has her Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education. She is the mother of a 6.5 year old autistic first grader. Shelly devotes her time to her son and advocating for our local Special Needs community, and also enjoys sewing and quilting. I’ll be posting her story in two parts…

My son is six and a half. He is autistic, with a severe speech delay and just started first grade this fall. He is in a Special Day Class and gets mainstreamed into a general education class for a few hours of the day with a full time aide. He is not yet aware of his special needs, but his 1st grade peers are more socially savvy, so I was relieved when the phone rang during the second week of school with a surprising invitation.
Our school psychologist was calling to say that my son’s mainstream teacher had requested that he do an “ability awareness” lesson with her class regarding my son’s autism. He asked if I would like to be involved. I went silent for a second - in total disbelief - at that instant my heart was so full. I was touched that he was calling to ask me this! He explained that as a school psychologist he has been asked many times to do this and knows that some parents prefer anonymity and others like to be involved and wanted to check in with me about my comfort level. The plan was to read a story to the class to set them up for understanding about special needs: how we are all the same but that we are also different at the same time. After that I would have time to discuss my son’s specific needs. The lesson was set for September 7th. We hung up and I immediately began to think of what I’d say and do.
It was a nerve-wracking week for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to explain autism to 6-7 year-olds. How could I make it real to them? I would have only about ten minutes to speak and wanted to say it all without putting them to sleep. I called on the help of an autism interventionist friend of mine and my son’s former preschool teacher. They helped me work out the content and flow of what I should say.
The night before, I couldn’t sleep. It felt like the first day of school and I was a nervous wreck. I went into the classroom that afternoon with the school psychologist and an Instructional Support teacher. The teacher began her story. It was a 1992 Sesame Street book called, “We’re Different, We’re the Same” originally intended to illustrate racial harmony. It was a cute story, however, and set things up nicely for me. The psychologist segued further by talking to the students about how they are all a team in their classroom and how even though my son isn’t always in their classroom, he’s still a part of their team. He said I was there to tell the kids a bit more about my son and then turned it over to me….

Sorry to leave it here, but this is the best place (really) to break the story. Come back in a few days to read Part 2.


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