When we think about autism awareness, we think about educating the community leaders; the teachers, caregivers, police officers, neighbors, family and friends. It’s so important to make sure as many people as possible are educated in autism and the challenges and beauty autism offers because awareness is key to acceptance and respect. The more people learn and understand about children with autism, the more empathy and proper care they will receive. So what about the importance of autism awareness in young children, and how do we teach compassion?
When my son was five years old, I put him in a pre-school program with an aide. Joshua was given the opportunity to participate in all the activities just like his fellow classmates. His peers, like all other children in the community, had to learn what autism was for Joshua, how they could help him, how they were the same, how they were different, and how to respect one another. If young children have the opportunity to learn about diversity and disabilities such as autism, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of other children when they meet someone with special needs.
Empathy allows children to not only understand other people, but encourages them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes which is the first step towards compassionate action. During circle time at the preschool, Joshua’s classmates would get his special sensory chair for him so he could feel comfortable and included. When they saw him climbing on something dangerous, they would swiftly alert the teacher or guide him to safety. And at craft time, one sweet student always sat next to him, providing consistency and camaraderie.
The children around Joshua didn’t see him as autistic, but as a friend who sometimes needed help participating. It is essential that children learn at a young age that it is OK to be different, have challenges, and that there is so much more to a person than his/her disability. This acceptance and understanding leads children to being more protective of their fellow peers and may even lead to fewer bullying experiences.
Teaching children autism awareness is just as important as teaching adults in the community. Children at a young age learn that it’s OK to be different and no two people are the same. As a growing society of children with different disabilities and challenges, we need to be open with our youth about the importance of seeing a person’s disability as only a small characteristic of a person, that there is so much more to an individual then just the disability. So as society is growing to become more mindful and respectful of individuals with disabilities and challenges, our youth also can become examples of empathy, respect and compassionate support for others.
This article was featured in Issue 71 – Navigating A New Year