Monday, September 23, 2013

Friendship and Autism--Wings of Hope

Children's hands...held in friendship.
“Matthew was running.   He was running very fast, skipping over the bright green grass, over the yellow dandelions and the smiling daisies, with the wind singing in his hair.”   From Wings of EPOH

Last week I attended peer training in Ryan’s Junior Kindergarten class.  Ryan’s Autism Consulting Teacher developed a short program designed to encourage friendships between him and the typically developing kids.  The goal is to foster friendships between Ryan and four or five children that will develop over time during his elementary school career.

The training started with a discussion of autism and Ryan’s particular behaviors and challenges.  Ryan’s Skills Trainer has told me the children in his class ask why he sometimes cries and makes noises and I think explaining his condition to his classmates encourages understanding and empathy.  I know some parents do not want their child’s disability discussed, but I am quite the opposite.  It’s a lot to ask young children to be in class with a child who does not respond to them and who, to their eyes, behaves very strangely without any explanation.  
A touching story of a child with autism...
The teacher showed a short film called, “Wings of EPOH”, the story of a young boy with autism named Matthew who meets a butterfly named EPOH, which is “hope” spelled backwards.  It began with a dream sequence of Matthew flying in the clouds.  It was beautifully done, but I couldn’t help but think that for so many kids with autism, their dreams are truly an escape from their daily reality—a place where they’re able to control their bodies and speak freely.  

I love this picture of Ryan, walking with his friend to the playground.
EPOH shares the struggles she’s faced, especially her metamorphosis from caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly—obvious symbolism that even a group of kindergartners couldn’t miss, but it was a lovely story all the same, as Matthew’s friendship with EPOH changes the way he views his difficulties.

After the film, the teacher pointed out similarities between Ryan and his classmates, and I think this helped make his autism less confusing for them and to see him as child first. I hope this will lead to greater acceptance for Ryan and ultimately real friendship. I think this approach is a step in the right direction.

I say real friendship because last year at my daughter’s elementary school I saw children unsure of how to interact with an autistic boy there.  Interactions were either very superficial—high fives, or consisted of the children talking to a 13 year old boy as if he was a toddler.  But then, most of the teachers didn’t seem to do much better.  I felt as if I was looking at Ryan’s future and it both alarmed and depressed me.

As the incidence of autism continues to rise, there will need to be more effort placed on melding these kids into society.  They need friends to make life enjoyable and social skills to make them employable.  I know of one organization whose stated mission is to provide both friendship and life skill coaching.  Best Buddies is a non-profit started by the Kennedy family, to create opportunities for one-on-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (
We have a Best Buddies chapter here in Hawaii...
Although there may be other groups striving to teach developmentally delayed kids employment skills, I haven’t seen one other than Best Buddies that emphasizes one-to-one friendship, as well.  Friends play an important role in a child’s development—a child might respond to a friend’s admonishment over an inappropriate behavior where s/he may ignore a parent. 

The benefits of an inclusive classroom aren’t just of value to autistic children—there are also incalculable benefits to their typically developing peers.  These children learn about equity, social justice, and empathy.  Students who are taught in inclusive and safe environments are shown that everyone is valued and they will learn to respect and advocate for those less fortunate in the larger community.

There are studies that indicate inclusive classrooms can reduce bullying incidents because they put into practice valuable life skills: patience, sharing, caring for others and acceptance. Ryan and his classmates are learning important lessons.
Share, care and be kind to others...
To paraphrase Robert Fulghum, everything these kids need to know, they’re learning in kindergarten.

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