Successful Autism Integration: How it makes ALL kids better human beings

As parents of children with autism, we want our children to have the same kind of enriching experiences in life as do typically developing children. The best way to ensure a rich childhood, full of opportunities, is to integrate our children with typically developing children.

Unfortunately, there are often barriers created by a variety of people, particularly a small percentage of parents of typically developing children. These parents see no benefit for their children to be integrated with children who are challenged with special needs. This is particularly true when it comes to the integration of children afflicted with autism. Let’s face it: our children are not always reinforcing for others and they often behave in ways that completely ignore social norms. This can create discomfort for some.

However, what many parents of typically developing children do not understand is the tremendous value of successful integration of the disabled for their typically developing children.

So what
is the value of successful integration for typically developing kids? Here is a partial list.

Typically developing children:
  • learn not to prejudge the ability of others
  • learn how to break down skills and teach them to others, thereby becoming excellent teachers
  • are exposed to exceptionally positive role models in the form of therapists, psychologists and tutors
  • receive much more positive adult attention than they otherwise would in a large group of children, since successful integration requires the adult/child ratio to be greater
  • learn to feel very good about themselves and their ability to lead
  • are forced to look beyond their egocentric world and see that there are others in the world with real challenges, who are far less fortunate only because they drew the short straw in life’s lottery
  • become very comfortable with people who are disabled
  • learn empathy
  • are protected from bullying due to the increased adult supervision that surrounds children with autism
  • are provided more enriching opportunities due to the adults who often orchestrate and/or design rich social interactions
  • are exposed to potential career opportunities and lucrative job prospects
  • have a great experience to put on their resume when applying to college

That’s a long list of very valuable benefits to integration; however, the most important benefit for typically developing children when they are properly integrated and interacting with children who suffer from autism, is that they learn to become decent human beings. I think most would agree we can use more of that in our society.

Many parents send their children to faith-based organizations to learn how to be a person with good values. Just add a child with autism to the mix, and the learning process is greatly accelerated.

The Integration Ballet

Haven’t we progressed beyond the dark ages? I just read a first hand account of a mother who desperately wanted her child to attend a dance class at the local dance studio. I can’t believe that in the year 2011, I’m still reading stories about children with autism who are unable to participate in activities with their typically developing peers! The concept that children with autism must be in a special, segregated class is, quite frankly, offensive. Children with autism do not have a communicable disease, and there is NO reason why these kids cannot be mainstreamed! The sooner one starts, the better. It is easier introducing a child to an activity with younger children because their skills have not progressed as far. That said, there is successful mainstreaming and unsuccessful mainstreaming. Let’s make sure mainstreaming efforts are successful and thereby take away any excuse from the luddites who may be in positions of authority.

Here is a recipe for successful mainstreaming:
  • First, choose a highly structured activity and be prepared to pre-teach the routine. A structured dance or gymnastics class is a good place to start. Get ready to positively reinforce your child for learning these routines by creating a reinforcement schedule.
  • Second, get permission to go by yourself and learn the routine. If you can get permission to video-record the session, that’s a bonus.
  • Third, teach the child with autism the routine at home until the child understands all the steps and/or circuit.
  • Fourth, go with the child prior to class and lead the child through the lesson before it starts. If you can get the instructor to do this with you, that’s even better. If the child is older, then give him or her a few private lessons prior to introducing them to the class lesson.
  • Fifth, on the day of the lesson, have someone who looks like an instructor pretend to help all the kids (but actually be there for your child). Ask to borrow a t-shirt from the facility so that the aide or therapist blends in. If you are not allowed to have someone else be there, then put the t-shirt on and help your child.
Eventually, your child will need progressively less help. The idea is for you or the helper to eventually fade out.

How do you get permission to do this? Well... you must refuse to take no for an answer. You need to meet with the head of the program and show the person in charge all the various steps you plan on taking in order to make this a
wonderful experience for everyone. You must be very positive and sell the idea to them. Once you come with such a well thought out strategy, it will be unlikely that they will get in your way; however, in the case where you do encounter a closed-minded person, here is a sample of possible objections you may encounter and how to deal with them:

Objection: “We’d love to have this happen; however, we just don’t have the resources.”
Answer: Oh, I completely understand. That’s not a problem because I will be supplying the helper completely at my expense. She will be volunteering.

Objection: “We have a wonderful program for all the special needs children that we think is much more appropriate for your child.”
Answer: We actually would like our child in the class with the typically developing children because we are looking for typically developing peers for my child to model.

Objection: “
Our insurance doesn’t cover people who are not on staff.”
I completely understand. Let’s use the same insurance that you use for volunteers applied to my child’s helper.

If you get nowhere, at some point you may want to introduce them to your lawyer and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Canada’s Charter of Rights or comparable legal protections in your jurisdiction. Once the studio or community center has a successful mainstreaming experience, they will be more open-minded the next time and the next parent that follows you will have an easier time of it as well.

Good luck and remember... failure is not an option!

How To Skate Around Discrimination

I just read about the latest battles of a family that successfully integrated a child into skating lessons. This story transported me back in time to when I had to convince various teachers that having a child with a “helper” is the best way to successfully integrate my child into an activity.

I can’t believe that I’m still reading about the same issue twenty years later! In
this article, the parents were savvy. They quickly went over the head of the luddite who has no concept of the term “accommodation” and called the media. In this case, the media did their job and put pressure on the mayor, who immediately realized that this flawed policy must be changed. Kudos to those smart parents who leveraged the media to change a policy that is going to help every child with special needs who follows. I’ve written in the past on how to address this problem in a non-confrontational manner; however, since this pattern keeps rhyming, it is worth revisiting the issue.

Based on the lessons learned from this news story, here are the following steps you may consider taking when you sniff a potential problem when integrating your child: first, approach the person in charge of registration and with a very energetic, positive demeanor say that you’d love to have your child learn how to skate (swim, dance or whatever); however, due to your child’s special needs, you have a shadow aide, or helper, to provide
free of charge to the class to support your child. You may want to add that this person knows your child quite well and will only jump in when your child has a problem understanding the directions given by the instructor.

One of two things will happen: the manager will say yes, or no.

If you are given permission, congratulations! If the manager is amenable (and you feel comfortable), then you may add that it would be less stigmatizing for the child if the helper could wear a T-shirt with the name of the rink on it, and thereby keep the children and parents guessing regarding who this second adult is in class. Your child’s shadow will simply look like a regular volunteer, not necessarily there for your child.

If the manager declines, then it is time for step two: phone your local paper and set up an interview about how the publicly funded recreation center is discriminating against a disabled child. If the reporter is not seasoned enough to interview the mayor, you might want to suggest it. In addition, if you are lucky enough to live in a country with laws protecting your child, you may want to mention those laws to the reporter. If you want to make the rubble bounce, it may be useful to send the reporter a link to the website with those laws, and copy and paste the specific part of the law into the body of the e-mail. If you are not lucky enough to have those laws at your fingertips, another idea is to contact all the various disability groups and mention that it may be a good idea for them to contact the reporter and their politicians. The pressure put on these folks will generally be too much to handle and accommodations will be made.

Ironically, once you succeed in integrating your child and they realize that life as we know it did not end, the recreation center will celebrate its success in being so open-minded and progressive! Let them own your victory; that will help the next child in line, and that child’s parent who will have no clue that the reason it was so easy to include a shadow teacher is because of a bloody minded parent who preceded them.

Here’s to bloody-minded parents!

Finding Religion to End Run Autism Education Discrimination

Isn’t it grand when the public school system successfully mainstreams children with autism. When everyone works together and makes the child with autism a valued member of the classroom, it’s truly wonderful!

What happens, though, when this is not the reality? Parents have three choices: 1) they can accept the sub-standard educational experience offered to their child and live with this depressing reality for 13 years, 2)
they can fight the system, getting the lawyers to communicate in a way that makes the school do the right thing (often mortgaging their house to pay for the fight), or 3) they can place their child in private school.

Here’s where religion comes in. When shopping for a private school, it may be wise to “find religion” because your odds of finding a private school that will actually take your child increases once you add parochial schools to the mix! In addition, many religious private schools are not as expensive since they are often subsidized by members of the associated congregation. An additional benefit is that your child becomes a member of a peer group that is being taught kindness and inclusion for special needs children as part of religious teachings.

Not all religious school administrators are equally open-minded; however, you can visit a number of parochial schools until you meet a religious leader who is sufficiently pious to do the right thing. The advantage of a private school is that you are the customer and, therefore, the school has more incentive and flexibility to meet the needs of your child.

Sometimes it’s worth fighting the powers that be to make sure your child has access to the neighborhood school and, therefore, the neighborhood kids; however, sometimes the battle may be too painful, onerous or impossible to win. When the battle against intransigent public schools hits the wall, it may be time to find a welcoming religious community to provide your child with a viable alternative.

I sure hope autism centers aren't stealth segregation

Seemingly once a month, the media publicizes yet another autism center breaking ground or opening thanks to a generous grant from somewhere. All this incredible generosity is designed to help children with autism.

At first glance, the concept of an autism center sounds ideal and supportive of children with autism, but we need to ask whether segregated treatment or educational centers are really the best way to go for this population of children. If an autism center is a place to train professionals or have weekly team meetings, I understand the role of the center; however, if an autism center is a place where children are segregated from the population at large at the earliest age, I think we, as a community, are making a huge mistake.

Integration and inclusion are easiest when children with autism are young. My fear is that if we segregate kids when they are young, we may be sealing their fate as segregated middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults. It becomes increasingly difficult to integrate children with autism as they get older, so if we do not start young, we may never begin. Children with autism need to learn typical school patterns when they are in preschool and kindergarten so that by the time they reach fourth grade, they only have to be challenged with the curriculum rather than the potpourri of social and instructional skills that they’ve learned from preschool. If we keep postponing integration, we will inadvertently rob kids with autism of a typical childhood.

Although every child is different, many children can begin integration as preschoolers after six months to a year of intensive treatment. Some children will need a trained aide to accompany them; however, it very often is still the right time to integrate these young children.

If new autism centers are places to guarantee integration, that’s a great use of the generosity of good people; however, if they are gold-plated segregated sites, I fear we are sliding into the bad ole days of systemic segregation.