EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new section, we’d like to invite commentary from parents of children with special needs who may have something positive, uplifting or encouraging to share with other parents who are on the same journey: Raising a child with special needs.
Inclusion is a hot topic in the world of special needs. School administrators, teachers, therapists, behaviorists, and parents often spend countless hours developing and implementing programs designed to include children with special needs into the world of their typically developing peers. Just as no two children (even ones with the same diagnosis) are the same, inclusion is not one size fits all. There are no easy solutions or rigid steps to follow to make inclusion successful. Like the process of human development, inclusion is fluid and continually changing. It is ongoing and influenced by the people, surroundings, and the individual’s needs, abilities, and limitations.
I have never met a parent of a child with special needs that hasn’t worried about inclusion in school, at home, and in all social situations. How will my child be perceived? Will he or she be accepted? Understood? Will they ever really be a part of a group? The questions are endless. When inclusion does work, the outcome can be meaningful not only for the identified child, but also for the peers and adults that are lucky enough to be a part of the process. As a parent of a child with cerebral palsy and professionally as an advocate, I have fought tirelessly to help my son, Jack, to be as fully included as possible in all areas of his life. I’d like to share with you an example of how wonderful inclusion can be, and how truly possible it really is!
I took Jack to a birthday party for a child in his 1st grade class. It was at the Fairfield Sportsplex. This is typically a recipe for disaster for Jack because this type of party tends to be noisy, chaotic, and overwhelming. I almost always decline these invitations because Jack ends up crying, I end up sweating, miserable, and apologizing for the disruption, the parent of the child having the party feels bad, and nobody is ends up happy! I was ready to decline this party as well but I met the mother of the birthday boy a few weeks prior to the party, and before I could decline she told me how important it was to her son that his Jack be able to attend and participate at the party. . They had even hired an extra “coach” in anticipation that Jack could use an extra set of hands to get the help he needed and enjoy the parties activities. I couldn’t say no – how thoughtful to be thinking of Jack’s needs while planning their son’s party?
We arrived 15 min. late to the party and about 20 other children were already deeply engrossed in the party activities. The mother greeted me warmly despite having only met me once, and offered to help me et jack situated. The birthday boy quietly but excitedly got the attention of the coach to explain that his friend Jack had arrived and that Jack didn’t like loud noises. The coach reminded all the kids of this and asked that they all try not to scream. He asked them to greet Jack by saying “hi” in quiet voices. All at once they quietly said “hi Jack”. The coach went back to the activity at hand, but again, politely, the birthday boy got the coaches attention. He whispered something I couldn’t hear, and the coach asked all the kids to line up. As I began to follow his directions and line up w/Jack, the coach stopped me and asked me to stay where we were because the birthday boy wanted everyone to “high five” Jack. I was touched – I knew that the “high five” was Jack’s way of greeting his peers in school. One by one every child stood in line and patiently waited for a turn to “high five” Jack. Each child said and did what I knew they had been taught in school – “hi Jack, can I have a high five?” And then they waited…and Jack gave high fives! When Jack looked around the room and appeared distracted, the kids naturally and effortlessly said “hey Jack, look at me”. Then again, they waited. When he looked, they repeated the same question “can I have a high five?”
I choked back tears and my heart truly felt like it would burst. I was self-conscious at first because I didn’t want to take away from the birthday celebration. After all, this day was not about Jack. But in allowing this experience to unfold, I realized the beauty of the fact that this lovely experience was not Jack’s alone. The 5 minutes it took to welcome Jack and include him did no take away from the party or bother any of the kids. Not one child looked rushed or concerned that they were losing out on valuable “party time”. This was not a burden, it was just a process that was being played out with their friend Jack.
The birthday boy is a remarkable child. Really, just emotionally and socially attuned in a very profound way. Clearly his parents are remarkable as well. However, I am heartened to realize that this is not a rarity. In past years at school there have been a few kids who really took to Jack. This year however, most of the kids, not just a few, have begun to interact and include Jack in very real ways. This is becoming the norm, and these kids are learning this from Jack’s team ! Each and every person on Jack’s team sees him as a communicator and a valuable member of his community. His therapists and teacher have undoubtedly conveyed this positive message to the students and it is resonating in profound ways!
I recently learned that schedules are made by Jack’s teacher because the kids fight over who gets to be his partner, or push his wheelchair, or sit next to him in class. There is nothing that puts a smile on my face more than knowing that he is valuable and desired by others in this way! I really believe that kids want to be inclusive; they just need to be given the tools and the opportunity to do it. A truly inclusive community is one that is predicated on reciprocity between all participants, not just mere tolerance. In his own way, Jack is an active participant, not only an observer in the world. It is truly a gift to know that he is an integral part of his community and my hope is that as he grows, so too will his ties to this and other communities as well.
By Jennifer Theriualt