About one week before Casey Gilden joined the inclusive classroom, his mother, Cory, came in as a guest speaker. Based on suggestions made by other parents of children with ASD, Cory crafted a presentation that included reading Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book, by Celeste Shally. “It was a little lesson plan,” explains Cory, “so I discussed it with both the regular-education and special-ed teachers in advance. They were both very receptive.”
To Cory, no other children in the first-grade classroom at the time had obvious disabilities, and none had heard the word “autistic” before. (In fact, some thought she was saying “artistic.”) So, Cory began by introducing the concept of autism: “I come from the point of view that ‘Obviously, our kids with autism are different.’ I just had to explain to the neurotypical children how to be friends with a child with autism. I said ‘This kid is just like you and me. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Kids with autism have brains that work differently; this is how you can help. Let’s help each other out.’”
Then, Cory read the book and fielded comments. “The kids were able to relate to it,” notes Cory. “One said ‘Oh, my cousin is like that!’”
Cory recommends that a parent take the initiative in introducing a child at the beginning of a new school year: “I took it on because I wanted other children in Casey’s social life. Plus, he should be able to turn to a classmate and ask for clarification when he needs it. And the classmate should feel free to approach Casey when the classmate needs help, too.
“Anyone can do it,” assures Cory. “Just pause and think of your child in the classroom and how classmates can help foster interactions. Tell the classmates how to respond to your child with autism. Often, kids don’t know what to do and need to be told how to handle a situation.
“I’m proud that I introduced neurotypical first-graders to the concept of autism. The earlier you get to these children, the sooner they’ll learn not to be afraid.
“The situation can sometimes be tricky,” adds Cory, “because every parent, child, para, and regular-ed teacher comes from a different background. The school may not make introductions a priority, and not all teachers will introduce a child with a disability into the classroom. The para is not trained for it and may have no idea how to handle the situation.
“My approach is good for the regular-ed teacher as well as the children because I describe Casey and explain his strengths and weaknesses. Now, everyone in the classroom knows what to say when they see one of Casey’s actions.”
Today, Casey attends special education and therapy about 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day and is in the inclusive classroom about 4 to 4 1/2 hours a day. “This works well for Casey right now because he is at an appropriate academic level with his peers,” explains Cory, “and the kids in the regular-ed classroom give him an example of how to behave. But he still gets one-on-one practice on his IEP goals, separately with therapists and with the special-ed teacher. I think Casey also enjoys the ordered environment and routine of the regular-ed classroom. It allows him to participate in things like field trips and singing concerts that the DAP classroom doesn’t take part in. But he also appreciates going to his DAP classroom to get a sensory break and to earn rewards.
“The regular-ed kids have really taken to Casey,” adds Cory, “and make a special point of saying hi to him when he comes in. Casey loves the attention! Young children have the natural inclination to help when they can. And when they help Casey, they feel grownup. And Casey feels cared about—so it’s a win-win!”
Cory Gilden is a former teacher, longtime autism advocate, a research assistant earning her doctorate at the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities in the Joseph R. Biden, Jr., School of Public Policy & Administration, and the parent of a son on the autism spectrum.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the April–June 2015 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.