Since April is Autism Awareness month, I thought that this was the perfect time to talk about autism with Ryan’s first grade classmates. Ryan attends a cross categorical special education classroom for all of his academics, but is mainstreamed in a typical first grade classroom for morning circle, social studies, science, related arts, recess, and lunch.
I wanted Ryan’s classmates from both classes to better understand his differences. This year, Ryan has some good friends from his typical class. Ryan calls one of the little girls, Ali, his BEST friend. This is the first time in his life that he has called someone other than an ABA Therapist his best friend!
Ryan and Ali play together on the playground and eat together at lunch. Sometimes, they walk hand in hand down the hall on the way to music or art. It’s adorable to watch. But Ryan is also learning some important social skills through this friendship, even though Ali often plays a mother-like roll.
Even though I had good intentions, I was a little worried about how I was going to get my message across to 21 six and seven-year olds. After some thought, I decided reading a book would be helpful. All kids love to be read to. And I decided we could make a craft. Crafts are fun and memorable. Maybe we could make some type of an autism awareness bracelet. Bracelets are always a hit in first grade.
I researched the book first. I found the perfect book on the internet called “My Friend With Autism” by Beverly Bishop. What I like about it is that it is narrated by a peer who is friends with a boy who has autism. He explains some things that his friend is good at, but also what he’s not so good at. He talks about the fact that his friend has sensory sensitivities and may find lights too bright and sounds too loud.
He talks about his friend’s unique ways of playing and difficulties with communicating. He then explains how to react to those differences. For instance, if his friend isn’t talking a lot, just keep talking to him, because his friend is listening. The book includes a CD of coloring pages that you can print out for the class. It also has notes in the back of the book with more explanations for adults.
When I walked into the classroom on the day of my presentation, the teacher had already prepared the class to let them know I was coming. The first graders were sitting on the carpet waiting patiently for me to begin. But there was one child missing, Ryan. He was sitting at the back table with the teacher assistant. He had his head turned away from me and did not want to sit on the carpet. I knew he was uncomfortable seeing me at school. When I told him the night before that I was coming, Ryan said, “I don’t want Mommy to come to school.” This is another example of how difficult change in routine is for Ryan. It’s also difficult for him to see me out of context when I visit his classroom. I’m not supposed to be at school. I belong at home. That’s where he’s used to seeing me.
Even though I have years of experience teaching in the classroom, I was still nervous. I sat down and looked at all of those expectant faces hoping I could explain clearly enough what autism is. I wanted them to understand Ryan better and maybe even want to attempt to be friends with him. I was nervous about saying the right thing. I didn’t want to bore them and go on and on. At the same time, I wanted to say enough that first graders could come away with a better understanding of their classmate. So I wrote everything down on note cards and even practiced it. When I spoke, the room was very quiet. This is close to what I said:
“Good morning everyone. I’m Ryan’s mom and I wanted to come in today and talk to you about autism, since April is Autism Awareness Month. One of your classmates, Ryan, has autism. Ryan, and other people with autism, have very unique brains. And the way their brains work is a little bit different. The difference isn’t bad, it’s just different. People are born with autism. It’s not something you can catch like a cold or the flu.
Autism is the name for a way the brain works that makes some people think, act and feel a little differently from other people. For example, most brains are good at talking and communicating with people, making friends and playing. Ryan’s brain isn’t as good at those things. But, autism can give some people like Ryan special strengths that can make them think in really unique and creative ways. One of Ryan’s strengths is that he has an amazing memory and can remember everything he hears. Most people with autism are very smart. Ryan can read and do math just as well as all of you.
Many famous people have autism. Albert Einstein and Mozart, a famous composer, were thought to have autism. Other famous people with autism are James Durbin from American Idol, actors Jerry Seinfeld and Dan Akroyd, and the man who created Pokemon.” (They were very impressed with my Pokemon reference.)
I then read the book, “My Friend with Autism” to the class. There were many thoughtful comments afterwards like, “Ryan holds his ears sometimes!” and “Ryan doesn’t always like to talk.” I saw their eyes light up and could see that many of them were making connections. When I announced that we were all going to make an autism awareness bracelet, there was a lot of excitement in the room.
The bracelets turned out cute and the first graders immediately put them on and showed them off. They loved the fact that they were allowed to take them home. The bracelets were easy to make. In the next post, I’ll make a list of all the supplies needed and I’ll share with you exactly how to make them.
I think the presentation was a success and most of the first graders “got it.” I even caught Ryan smiling at the back table.