The teen years can be awkward for any child. Transitioning into middle and high school, hormonal changes and maintaining balance are challenges most students have to endure.
When a child has a disability, these issues are exemplified. For example, children with autism may exhibit behaviors that are off putting to their classmates. Some students with autism may have difficulty socializing or communicating their feelings with peers. This doesn’t mean that people with autism don’t want to have the same experiences that others their age go through. It just means it can be a bit more challenging.
Halle Sorenson, a Portland, Maine, resident with autism, was so excited about her 18th birthday party. Not a single classmate showed up, so her sister was determined to make her 19th birthday amazing. Luckily, the Internet prevailed and sent cards and good wishes to make this young lady’s day special.
For the third year in a row, 8-year-old Daniel Nicastro's classmates did not attend his birthday party. Initially, the story is heartbreaking. Comments online attacked parents and students who did not celebrate with this student with autism. The story had a happy ending when the North Port (Florida) police department showed up to make Daniel's birthday complete.
Despite the never-ending presence of these stories, I don’t think children (yes, even teens) are inherently exclusive and evil towards students with disabilities. As a middle school teacher, I have seen students treat young people with autism and other disabilities with empathy and kindness and include them in social activities in and out of school.
I think about the students in my class a few years ago who coordinated a party for a young girl with autism who was going to miss a lot of school for personal reasons. They wanted to wish her good luck and send her with love and things to do while she was gone. Ultimately, these middle schoolers wanted to make sure she knew how much they would miss her.
I think about the members of my Language Arts class several years ago who encouraged another young woman with autism to pursue her passion in art and invited her to share her drawings with the class.
Are there students who simply did not want to come to this young lady’s party because she has autism? Are there students who are on the autism spectrum who get snubbed for activities? Yes. I can’t deny that it happens, but I think the real issue here is education.
April was Autism Awareness month, and although schools do a lot to talk about autism during this time, it’s simply not enough. It’s so important for teachers and parents to talk to our kids about what autism is and why children with autism may exhibit certain seemingly socially inappropriate behaviors.
When students don’t understand what autism is, they may think a student is just being mean or weird. As parents, we should be asking our kids about their classmates, teachers and what’s happening at school. Teenagers will often try to avoid these conversations, but if we start early with communication, it will become an expected and welcome habit.
As early as preschool, my daughter started to notice there were kids who seemed much younger than her in school even though they were the same age. The children were nonverbal, and it was hard for her to communicate with them. This was a teachable moment for us as a family (and her babysitter, with whom she initially brought it up to) to discuss differences and how they made her classmates special and amazing.
Her friends overcame things that everyone said would be impossible. If a 4-year-old can understand that sometimes her friends might be sad or angry because of a disability, then certainly older children and adults can understand that. Accepting that invitation to a birthday party or inviting their classmate to hang out may make a difference in their life more than we will ever know.
Jen Schneider is a middle school teacher and mom to two children.