Valuable Ways You Can Talk About Autism to Your Child’s Classmates
My son entered first grade at a brand new school. As parents, we decided that we wanted the other kids in his class to know about his diagnosis of autism. There were several reasons that we decided to do this. We were hoping that this would create an environment where he would be accepted for his differences, rather than being labeled as the kid who is different. My son has very good verbal skills and can speak in full sentences. However, he has difficulty with social interactions, such as knowing what topics of conversations to talk about.
For example, he might ask another child “How old are you going to be when I’m seven?” He also has some sensory challenges, such as, he doesn’t like loud clapping. This resulted in him yelling at the parents of the other children during his kindergarten graduation. There are times at the park where these challenges might deter other children from continuing to interact with him. When he was playing in the sandbox one day when a bee came by, and as soon as he saw it, he jumped up and began screaming.
Another time he was playing with a toy rocket that shot in the air when you stomped on an air bladder. Unfortunately, taking turns was a little too complicated for him. His efforts to try to get a turn led him to act what the other kids would call “bossy.” In both scenarios, the kids slowly wandered off. However, we found when we are able to explain to the other kids about autism, they were more understanding and continued to play. So we decided telling the class was a must.
We chose to disclose the diagnosis in the form of a presentation that was given to his first grade class. I created the presentation and the child and youth worker at the school delivered it. Much of the information I included came out of the book Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism by Robert Koegel and Lynn Koegel. These are some of the things that I included:
- Defined autism
- Explained sensory challenges
- Described what my child likes that other kids like (waterslides, video games)
- Described what my child likes that other kids may not (drawing maps, road signs)
- Talked about what my child is good at (strengths)
- Described things that are easy for most children but hard for my child (sitting still, talking to others)
- Shared ways the other children could help: talk to him about what he likes, share with him, offer to help him, tell him nicely if he does something they don’t like
- Provided an opportunity for questions
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Since this is a first grade class, the presentation consisted mostly of pictures. The sentences were short with simple words. At this grade we opted for my son not to be present during the presentation. We didn’t want him to feel embarrassed or singled out.
There is a great resource available called Educating Children about Autism in an Inclusive Classroom by Vianne Timmons, PhD, et al. It has nine different lesson plans that can be used. The various lesson plans are designed for multiple age groups from kindergarten to 12th grade. Each lesson plan is designed for a different age range. If you don’t feel comfortable disclosing the diagnosis to the class, the lesson plans can be general to teach children about being inclusive. The Organization for Autism Research also has a great resource called Kit for Kids. They have generalized lesson plans (not specific to your child), as well as some great visual resources.
As my son gets older and continues on through school, we may take a different approach to telling his classmates about his diagnosis. He will take a more active role in deciding whether or not he wants the others to know. If he does decide he wants to tell others, he may become more involved in what goes in the presentation. He may even decide he wants to be the presenter.
My son still experiences challenges in his classroom. He still has difficulty with the unstructured parts of the day such as recess. However, his teacher called him a “social butterfly” during class work and he has been able to use some of his strengths to help the other children. I would like to believe that the presentation was a part of this success.
Koegel, R., & Koegel, L. (2006). Interventions in general education classrooms: one boy’s story as seen by his mother in Pivotal Response Treatments for Autism: Communication, Social, & Academic Development. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.
Timmins, V., Breitenbach, M., & MacIsaac, M. Educating Children about Autism in an Inclusive Classroom
Jaimie Coleman is the mother of a six-year-old boy with autism who is in a first grade general education classroom. Her son’s diagnosis led her on a journey to learn more about Pivotal Response Therapy. Jaimie is a now Level 3 Certified in PRT and provides therapy to other children with autism using a motivational approach in a naturalistic manner. She is also a physiotherapist and lives in Ontario, Canada.
This article was featured in Issue 62 – Motherhood: An Enduring Love