When my older, neurotypical son Frankie was in the fourth grade, begins parent Jen Nardo, he wrote a book report about a child living with autism. During Frankie’s oral report, he talked about his younger brother Jake and some of the challenges our family faced at the time. Another boy in the class told Frankie to “get his brother a brain.” The comment cut Frankie to the bone.
Sadly, no teacher took it seriously. But I wanted to make sure that this never happened again—to my son or any other child. As a parent, I didn’t have a choice about whether or not to share my story. It was time, notes Nardo.
After approaching the headmaster of Frankie’s school, we made a plan to turn this ignorance into a teachable moment. I invited Special Olympics Delaware to come talk. Frankie spoke as well, talking about the great things that happened to him because of his brother Jake: meeting a famous NFL quarterback, receiving a special pass to Walt Disney World. And I spoke about all that makes Jake just like any other kid: his love of pizza, French fries, the beach, and so on.
I also covered the basics of Jake’s diagnoses, which include fragile X syndrome, attention deficit disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder as well as autism. The hard part was keeping the information at an appropriate level for fourth through eighth graders, but I found that photos of Jake and a short video fit the bill.
I have always had the attitude that sharing stories and information about Jake was the better approach. If I convey my comfort with Jake’s challenges, anyone meeting Jake would be comfortable, too.
I also encouraged questions and told parents to tell their kids to “Ask away,” adds Nardo. I would rather have someone ask me about a topic that feels awkward than to have an awkward silence or a raised eyebrow.
For your child with autism, there are many ways to approach the subject in his or her class—as well as in a sibling’s class. Here’s one I have tried and the kids liked: Hand out crackers, and ask the class to chew only a little and try to speak. When the students can’t make anyone understand them, they get an idea as to how it feels for those who can’t speak clearly or maybe at all.
Another suggestion I have is reading a book about autism spectrum disorder. A younger class would appreciate The Autism Acceptance Book, by Ellen Sabin, or All About My Brother, by Sarah Peralta.
A class might also enjoy coloring books with similar messages, such as My Friend with Autism: A Coloring Book for Peers and Siblings, by Beverly Bishop (author) and Craig Bishop (illustrator). It can be bought online at http://www.amazon.com/My-Friend-Autism-Coloring-Siblings/dp/1885477899.
In the end, sums up Nardo, I believe that the more we share our families’ stories and show how wonderful our children who live with autism really are, the more we will find compassion and acceptance in the world.
Sun contributor Jen Nardo is a long-time parent-mentor, autism advocate, and newsletter committee member as well as the parent of two sons, one with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the July–September 2016 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.