Several months ago, I was sitting in an IEP meeting at my son's school when it happened. We were discussing the problems Sam was having making friends, and I explained the frustrations he felt over moving and struggling to find a new best friend. It was hard for him to do that, considering how he was being made fun of at recess because of his scripting and lightsaber fighting, acting out his scenes all by himself. I asked about the possibility of using the upcoming autism awareness month of April to come in and talk to his class about autism. I was surprised at the enthusiasm of the principal (whom we absolutely LOVE!) as we talked through what that would look like, if Sam would be a part of it or not, and if he would be okay with it, which he was.
When opportunities arise to better the situation, take advantage of those times, even if you think the answer might be no. It never hurts to ask, and if hearing "No" is the worst thing that could happen, then it's totally worth it to try anyway.
After talking with Sam and getting his approval, I did some research, talked to friends who had talked about autism with their child's class at school to see how they did it, and gathered my resources. I thought it would be helpful to be as prepared as possible, so I asked the teachers of the 5th grade classes (there are 4) to have their kids write out any questions they had about autism on index cards so I could work their questions into my presentation. That way, I wouldn't be completely caught off guard during Q&A time. The teachers told the kids that if they couldn't think of any questions, they could write something nice about Sam, which I thought was sweet. His homeroom teacher sent the cards home with Sam for me. These are the questions 5th graders had (original spelling preserved):
Is autism scary/can it be scary? (2 cards with this question)
If you have autism, can you stay still most of the time or do you have to move around?
Are there different types of autism?
How does autism efect people?
Is your day-to-day life different then anyone else's?
Dose it make it difficult playing sports?
Do you think the same we do/How do they think with autism? (2 cards)
Do you feel different?
What causes autism?
What does autism mean/What is it autism? (2 cards)
Why do we have autism? (Written by a neurotypical kid)
How do you get it?
I arranged the questions in what I considered to be a logical order, and Samuel helped me write out answers to some of the questions. A few years ago, I read about a mom who wanted to talk to her son's class about his autism, and she came up with a great analogy of a toaster and a hair dryer for the differences in how brains with autism work versus brains without autism. (You can read about that here.) The basic premise is that even though autistic and neurotypical brains are made up of the same materials (plastic and metal and wires in the analogy to make up each machine), when the brains were built, some brains turned into a hair dryer instead of a toaster, even though a hair dryer is made of the same materials as the toaster. I thought how great it would be to actually take in a toaster and a hair dryer and do a demonstration to act out the differences.
I took in a bag of mini bagels, our toaster, and my hair dryer. I asked for volunteers (ALL the kids jumped up to be picked, though I had no specific reasoning for choosing a boy or girl for any certain job; I just tried to choose evenly), and chose a boy to come up and be the toaster brain, which represented neurotypical brains. I gave him a bagel, and told him to choose his light/dark preferences, and toast the bagel. I then called up a girl to be the hair dryer representative. I gave her a bagel as well, and told her to "toast" the bagel. All the kids laughed as she looked at me with apprehension. As they were each toasting their bagels, I explained that in a world mostly made up of "toaster brains", we're all really good at making toast (which represents things important and necessary in society, like communication for example - the original blog post gives a better explanation). Obviously, the hair dryer was not good at making toast because that's not what it was designed to do. By the time the toaster popped up the perfectly toasted, hot bagel, the hair dryer bagel was barely warm. I could tell that they really got the analogy. Then, (and this was my favorite part), I took a spray bottle I had also brought with me and started squirting the boy's hair who was our "toaster brain" rep. The kids all laughed, then I asked, "But what happens when toaster-brain people get their hair wet? Can they use their toaster to dry their hair?" "Nooooo!!!!!" they responded. I told the girl to turn on the hair dryer, and help Mr. Toaster Brain dry his hair. As she blow-dryed his hair, there was an audible gasp from the class as they really got the full picture - hair dryer-brains might not be able to do the exact same things toaster-brains can do, but they are still valuable, and they can do things - important things - that toaster-brains can't!
That was the moment when tolerance gave way to empathy and compassion.
Because there's a difference—a BIG difference—between knowing something exists, and understanding it. Have you ever been upset because a friend or spouse snapped at you or over-reacted to something (according to your perception)? How did your response change when you found out that there was a reason for the initial reaction? Maybe something bad had happened earlier you didn't know anything about that changed how they typically respond to you. I know I've experienced this. That's the difference between tolerance and empathy. Tolerance would be me continuing to think they had a dumb over-reaction to absolutely nothing and walk away, irritated. Empathy is understanding the reasons underlying the reaction. Maybe the over-reaction was too extreme, but if something like autism or any other issue is in the driver's seat at the time, reason and logic and control over emotion may be temporarily lost. Tolerance puts up with something or someone without any understanding and is more apt to be frustrated by it. Empathy informs an appropriate response filled with true compassion that makes a positive difference in the relationship between each other. This is especially true in kids whose typical first reaction to something different in other kids is to think that they're "weird" or "strange", thus alienating the person acting differently from the rest of the group.
To further their understanding of autism, I also took several items with me to help at least a couple of them "experience" autism in some small way. I took my husband's bomber jacket that is quite heavy, half an onion in a baggie, a dog training clicker, a pocket LED flashlight, a piece of sandpaper, a roll of scotch tape, and our iPad that has a coffeehouse background noise app. I invited up another volunteer, a girl, and had her put on the heavy jacket, then sit in a chair in front of everyone. I passed out the flashlight and dog clicker to other kids in the audience and instructed them to flash or click every five seconds or so. Another kid held the open baggie with half an onion under the girl's nose, while another kid gently rubbed the sandpaper on the top of her foot, as another held the ipad app by her ear at a low volume, and gradually increased the volume as we went. I asked one of the teachers to give me a book and a kid picked out a passage of text for the girl to read out loud. It was a writer's workshop text book. I told her where to read, then stood behind her making random noise or tickling her ear as she read, meanwhile all the other distractions were going on at the same time. When she was done reading, I asked some very basic questions about the text she had just read, to which she responded, "I have no idea; I was too distracted." Mission accomplished. I invited up a boy to do the demonstration again, and he also was unable to answer the questions.
After that, I wrapped up by answering a few more questions they had about autism in general, or about Sam specifically. I made a point to them to always show kindness to people who might look or act in different or strange ways, because they might never know what that person is dealing with. I encouraged them not to be scared by anything, and now that they understood what he was doing and why, maybe they would consider talking with Sam and playing together. One girl even piped up and said, "Sometimes at home, when I'm all by myself, I script too, just like Sam."
I think the whole thing was extremely beneficial, and it's my understanding that even after that day (which was a Friday), it continued to have an impact on the kids as they talked to their parents about it, and talked about it at school too. I talked to the principal about coming back next year, and we're planning on me doing the same thing for all the classes, even though Sam will have graduated to middle school. But considering the rise in the prevalence of autism - currently 1 in 68 kids are diagnosed with autism (1 in every 54 boys) - I strongly believe that it is crucial to teach about autism awareness to children so that they grow up with empathy and compassion for kids who struggle instead of being scared by it, or judging it and rejecting those children.
If you have any interest in talking to your child's school administration about doing something similar, I am attaching my own presentation as a guide HERE. The mom who wrote about the toaster and hair dryer states on her blog that anyone is free to replicate her presentation or use the analogy, so you won't be infringing on any copyrights by using it. Obviously, parts of my presentation will be different based on your child's manifestation of autism or ASD symptoms, but you can of course make those changes, as well as any others, as needed.
Just remember—take advantage of possible opportunities (even if yo have to create it yourself). It never hurts to ask, and the outcome could be better than you thought opening up even more doors! I'd love to hear if any of you have taken autism awareness to school, what you did, and how it went!