Imagine you are a child and you’re a bit different from your classmates. You’re not sure why you’re different or how you’re different, but you know you are. Things everyone else finds easy to do, you don’t. The teacher reads a story to the class – it’s about a cow who wants to jump over the moon, so she tries and tries and tries until finally she can. The teacher asks you what the author’s message is. You say, “That the cow was stupid. Everyone knows cows aren’t strong enough to propel themselves outside our atmosphere and all the way to the moon. Besides, the cow would suffocate with no oxygen. People think that if you go into space without a spacesuit you would implode or freeze to death, but actually the water evaporates from your body and your blood starts to boil. It’s from the absence of air pressure.” Some of the other kids laugh at you and the teacher gives you this really funny look. She says, “No, honey. The author was trying to tell us that if you can’t do something, you should keep trying.” You hear one of your classmates whisper to a friend, “He’s so weird.”
Now repeat this scenario and other similar situations, over and over, for your entire school career. Add to it the fact that you can’t run well, or throw or catch a ball. No matter what you wear, the other kids say you dress like a dork. When they tell a joke, you don’t get it and when you try to act the way they do, they laugh at you. Some of the kids are nice, but no one ever asks you to come over to their house or go to a party. Your mom quit inviting your classmates to your birthday parties because none of them ever came. Imagine always being the weirdest kid in the class.
That’s what it can be like for our mainstreamed children.
Mainstreaming is when students with special needs are included in the general education classroom – special ed kids attending a regular class with typical kids. Depending on the child’s needs and their parents’ desires, the student may be mainstreamed all day or part of the day. He or she may study their core academics in a special education classroom and take the rest of their subjects in general ed, or maybe it’s the reverse for our kids who are high academically but benefit from spending part of their day in a less stressful environment. However it’s arranged, the goal of mainstreaming our kids is to not only give them the same educational opportunities as the rest of the students, but to also have them spend as much time as possible around typical students to improve their social skills. The thinking is that it’s hard to learn the same social skills as typical kids if you spend most of your time around non-typical children.
Mainstreaming is fantastic. If done properly, it works and our kids benefit. There are pitfalls we need to avoid when constructing a mainstreaming program; specifically those of delusional thinking (“If I put my kid in with the normal kids, all the normalness will rub off on him and he’ll no longer be autistic.”), archaic viewpoints (“A special ed kid in my classroom for gifted kids? I don’t think so.”), and misplaced enthusiasm (“I want my child completely totally mainstreamed. It’s his right, even if I am pulling him out of a specialized math class that teaches him at his academic level to put him in a class that’s working several years ahead of him. The school can just work it out.”) As long as we keep a realistic view of our children’s needs, abilities and goals, mainstreaming can work wonderfully. However, even great mainstreaming programs have a flaw built into them.
I’m not talking about the fact that although most typical kids are wonderful, there are a few of them we definitely do not want our kids to mimic. You know the ones – the obnoxious little brats you’d like to hang up by their ears but can’t because it’s illegal for adults to assault kids just because they’re toads, no matter what they said to your sweet little darling. Nope. Though having to deal with rotten kids is a flaw, that’s not it. In fact, for the sake of this discussion, let’s take those kids completely out of the equation. Let’s assume that all the school’s anti-bullying education and policies work completely and totally. All bullies and bully-type behavior is removed from our mainstreamed child’s school day. This is fantasy, la-la thinking, I know. Unfortunately we can’t change human nature that much. The schools are doing a great job, but no matter what they do, they won’t ever be able to completely erase obnoxious behavior. But for now, let’s ignore that facet of childhood. Even without bully behavior, mainstreaming our autistic children still has its downside.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how well we design our autistic child’s educational program, during the time he or she is in the general ed classroom, they will be the weirdest kid in the room. The lag in their social skill development guarantees it. Even if all the other kids and the teachers don’t point it out or make a big deal about it, those of our kids who are more self-aware notice it. They may not be able to say exactly what is going on, but they do know that they’re always the last one picked at PE. They know that the other kids understand things that they don’t – like how to join a game on the playground, what’s cool and what’s not, and all that girl/boy interaction stuff. They get that they’re different and that there are a lot of things that their peers are better at than they are, things that they really don’t understand at all. They see the difference and they look for an explanation. Unfortunately the one they often come up with is that they are stupid or weird.
So, what’s the solution? Mainstreaming has a lot of benefits that we don’t want to lose. Cloistering our kids in the special ed classroom (if that’s not where they need to be) is not the answer. We can’t keep them hidden away just in order to promote their feelings of self-worth. We need to put them out in the real world so they learn how to function there. So how do we do that without having them end up thinking they’re defective?
We can’t change the fact that they are different from their peers, nor should we deny it or put too much emphasis on it. Their differences exist and that’s it. There can’t be any drama from us about it to our kids. No wailing or gnashing of the teeth or laying blame on anyone. Their autism is just a fact of life. If we are accepting and low-key about their differences, then we help them along their path of accepting who they are.
What we can do is try put some balance into our child’s perceptions. He or she spends the majority of their waking hours in school, so it takes on an importance in their life that is out of perspective. The social interactions of their school day make up an unusually large part of their social world. After school, typical kids often hang out with friends or get involved with activities like scouting or sports or music lessons. But a lot of autistic children don’t. They may not have any friends and are often too worn out from school and homework to participate in group activities. While typical children get to spend time in an environment they’ve chosen where they are socially successful and that validates their worth, our kids get to struggle through homework and listen to their parents tell them what they did wrong in school that day and what they need to do differently tomorrow.
So as parents, we need to work extra hard to make sure our kids have opportunities to do things that build their sense of self-worth, like having friends, succeeding at goals, skill building and having people value what they do.
How do we do this? That’s a big topic, one that’s too big for this already too long blog post. So I’m only going to outline a few ideas here. Rest assured, we will revisit this topic in the future, but for now, here’s a quickie snapshot.
The building friendship part isn’t always as hard as we make it. Yes, we’ve got to do the “have cool toys and fun parties, etc” thing so kids want to come to our house and hang out with our kids. But we also have to try to attract kids who our child will enjoy. A lot of parents I talk to say, “I keep inviting his classmates over, but it doesn’t work out.” They invite their child’s typical classmates over, the same kids who don’t work out as friends at school, and try it again at their home. Guess what? Generally, it still doesn’t work.
Instead, try finding kids who are similar to your child and/or enjoy the same things he does. (Just like you find friends who are similar to you and like the same things you do.) Someone who he can relax around, have fun with and practice the social skills you keep trying to teach him. (A quick way to find other kids your child might like is to ask your child’s teacher for some recommendations, in her classroom and in others – including the special ed room. She may know of someone whose mother is also looking for play dates.)
And when you do get them together to hang out, make sure they have something to do that they will both like. Don’t make the success of the afternoon rest on your child’s sparkling conversation, ability to figure out what his guest would like to do, and him actually spending time doing it. If you think they may not be able to come up with something themselves, try to have some ideas in your pocket – at least for their first get-together. For instance, if your child likes to draw and his guest likes Pokemon, maybe they can design and draw Pokemon together. If your kid enjoys Legos and his guest is into dinosaurs, maybe they can build dinosaurs. See what you can come up with. Also, recognize that their idea of a good time and yours might be completely different. They might be perfectly happy being in the same room together, doing completely different things and not talking to each other. If at the end of the day, they both enjoyed themselves and would like to do it again, it was a successful play date.
You can also help your child get involved in an outside activity where he gets to do something he’s good at and likes. Community groups based on something he’s interested in, like model train clubs, science fiction book clubs or astronomy clubs are good. Classes where our kids learn a cool skill are great for giving them something tangible about themselves they can feel proud about. Groups who do community service are also a great bet for our kids. They’re always looking for volunteers and they often offer opportunities to learn something new. If your child learns to knit so she can make scarves for the homeless, not only has she learned a skill, she can also be proud that she helped other people.
The bottom line is that our mainstreamed kids are different than their classmates. If we’re not careful, our children can grow up thinking they’re weird or defective. As parents, we need to make a concerted effort to keep their self-worth intact. We won’t always be successful, but helping them make one or two connections, finding someplace where they’re valued, can make a heck of a difference in their lives.
This is an important topic and we’re going to keep exploring it in future posts. Until then, let me know some of the ways that you’ve helped your kids maintain their self-esteem. I’d love to hear them.