It’s been a while since I blogged. Just a lot going on in the head, as the new academic year for my kids began in August. We decided to opt for in-person school despite the Covid 19 concerns. Once we got used to the routines, I got myself thinking about the best ways to enable my son to get into a good steady pace for Grade 3. And amidst all this I knew if I do get to blog, I am going to definitely write about Inclusion.
Inclusion is a much talked about topic. Every one of us has an inherent need to be accepted, to fit in, feel wanted, to belong and not be left out. This is also the case with our children. The places that a child spends most of the time is home and school. It is therefore but natural for us to want that our child is accepted wholeheartedly by his teachers and peers at school.
While it is easier to cater to the needs of neurotypical children it’s quite a different ball game when a school takes upon the responsibility to be inclusive- which ideally means you accept responsibility to teach and nurture a child who is differently abled or has special needs. With responsibility, if there is true intention then the spirit of the child gets the much-needed boost. We found this intention in our child’s present school.
The background: When he was doing nursery in a preschool nearby, I thought of trying for admissions into the big school. However, after engaging with my child they informed me that they will not be able to support our child adequately in kindergarten. Their support facilities like Occupational and Speech therapy and Learning support team were all available only from Grade 1. The school advised me to think of a remedial environment which my child could benefit from and when he is ready to transition to mainstream (regular learning environment) they could consider our application again. However, we didn’t find enough options in the remedial setups for kindergarten age group. So, I decided to find options that could help my child assist him in his pre-school and at home. This is how we found the Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy. Within 6 months into therapy, my son had progressed from being in a shell to being interactive and with better fine motor skills.
One night I found the email trail from my last interactions with the school I wanted my child admitted in. With absolutely no optimism, I requested the same school to observe my child again and explained how with home sessions and school facilitation our child was coping much better. To my absolute surprise, the school agreed to re-evaluate the situation. The counsellor, who observed my child actually believed that with fair amount of facilitation there is a good chance our child could get the right kind of stimulation in this school due to the structure of their program. This was the counsellor’s vision. We are forever indebted. This school’s program required the child to engage with peers, in reading and writing workshops (not subjects) and was not really into the desk-chair-blackboard format.
I absolutely loved this school when we got to see all the classrooms and facilities. It was just not like the other mainstream schools. Little did we know that there is more in store and we were only about to meet our angel. The kindergarten teacher was the “intention” personified. Her love, care and understanding for our child, along with the environment she cultivated in the classroom-of kindness and goodness helped our son forge ahead. As he moved to a higher grade, the number of angels in his life increased. He loves it at school and hates to miss even a single day. Just a few days back I had a meeting with the Grade 3 teachers and when the teacher listed out my child’s strengths, I realised that I need to give myself time to look at my child as an individual with many enjoyable traits. I felt blessed that my son was in good hands for most of the day.
A form of intervention:Considering the hours our child is at school including the bus travel, school is the biggest intervention that has helped him in more ways than one. Children learn so much from their social interactions. For a child on the spectrum who is mostly visual and need peers (to model for them), it becomes easier in a mainstream environment rather than in a remedial set up where the likelihood of learning from peers is quite inadequate. They learn the appropriate behaviours and responses by observing their classmates. My son’s rigidities to conform to sudden changes in schedules hardly ever surfaced at school and when it did it didn’t last long as he wanted to do everything just like his friends! The inappropriate responses and meltdowns just decreased with every passing year. This is testament of the fact that most children with learning differences and behavioural challenges can with adequate accommodations, find success in regular school.
What are accommodations? The school took up the responsibility of our child and the teachers showered their best intentions. The actionable steps taken to help him thrive at school are the accommodations. I am listing a few for clarity. In kindergarten there was a stationary kit ready for the facilitator to grab and go with, to a room next door to work in, if my son had a meltdown. Our son was allowed to be facilitated. The facilitators gave him one-on-one support to complete his tasks. The teachers worked with the facilitators to make visuals and checklists so that his reliance on facilitators decreased. They gradually faded out of some sessions as he followed instructions and did tasks by himself. The school also helped create individualised learning plans for the year which involved assessing the child for the first month or two and then creating goals that the child should strive to achieve for the year. In Grade 1 for example, the goal for retelling a story was accommodated as allowing my son to sequence the pictures of the story in the correct order. In grade 1, his teacher gladly used an OT brush to rub his back with if he was fidgety. This helped him focus better. He was allowed to choose his reading spot that was least distracting. He could go for a run to get the silliness out! These were apart from the brain breaks and free choice that is applicable for all kids. Now in Grade 3, the learning support team is simply incredible and is pushing for complete independence. I can’t wait to see how this year turns out to be.
Flash back:I am almost certain that many of us cannot remember having seen a peer getting support of this nature during our school years and this is probably so because there weren’t as many cases of autism then and if there were learning differences weren’t actually noticed! Of course, the resultant behaviours were highlighted leading to eventual labelling of the child as a dull, slow child or an aggressive ill-mannered kid or a stubborn kid. If we did notice autistic children, they would be the ones at the higher end of the spectrum who looked odd,showed visible quirks or stims and went to a different school where all kids appeared to have issues and hence the word autism meant disability and sadness. Now there is greater knowledge of various learning differences and how there are kids on the spectrum who can be accommodated in typical school settings. They don’t have to always be sent to remedial or special needs schools. There is more in-depth knowledge of autism now and with schools trying to be inclusive, what is also required is –inclusion in the mindset of the larger community.
As a parent, I have begun to realise that certain ‘accommodations’ need to be made at home, in school and other places for my child. Say for example -playdates, birthday parties, restaurants, airports, malls etc. Now I speak for mom’s with kids, who have more sensory and anxiety issues because of which they miss out on a lot. What can we as a larger community do for these parents and kids?
- Educate yourself about what autism is all about, so you can help your child be empathetic to the autistic peer.
- If you know one child on the spectrum you know only one child on the spectrum. This is because while two children have the mild autism diagnosis, they may turn out to be vastly different. Hence do not undermine the efforts of the caregivers. The less judgemental you are, the more you and your child will be open to understanding the autiustic person in question.
- If you intend to have the autistic child over for a playdate at your home, may be ask the parent how best the situation/transition can be made easy for the child. May be the first playdate includes the parents having to socialise too as the child feels secure enough to explore the new surroundings with his parents around. Maybe you have a familiar snack or fixation ready so the child feels at home. Everything is in the “intent”. I was very fortunate that I found good friends in moms to my son’s typical peers. I was open about my child’s needs and before I sent my child over, I requested for theirs to come over a couple of times. When the playdate concept was familiar, I sent him for a short while to his peer’s home. Now he is happily going to various friends’ homes and while I don’t tell them about his diagnosis, I tell them to let me know if they face any issues. Yes, a year back I would rather let the other mom know that my child is on the spectrum but we have come a long way since. I just have to send along some gluten-casein free snack as that’s not usually available at most homes! Until now, its all been smooth and everyone finds him fun and friendly to have around.
- What could you do when you see a child lying on the floor screaming in a busy airport, with the mom standing there fazed? You could ask if you can be of help-get something from the shop on her behalf as she possibly couldn’t get to the store, herself? You definitely don’t want to talk to the child or address the child as the mom, probably is allowing the child to get through the meltdown and wouldn’t want strangers worsening the situation. You definitely don’t want to judge her or advise her. If you didn’t have the time you could walk past and not stare. I remember how while waiting to board the plane in Delhi airport, I was finding it hard to keep my son from running away and a co-passenger came over and asked me does he have a mental problem. He was actually being polite to me by not using mad or insane! I must admit I was shocked to react then. Unfortunately there are people out there, who out of their curiosity say the most random things.
- Small gestures like allowing a parent to move forward in the billing queue because their child is unable to handle the waiting time, or giving some time to the child who is repeatedly running around a table in the restaurant, before you decide to talk to the caregivers, would make a world of difference.
If there is intent shown by all of us towards a child with needs, we can foster inclusion. I am my child’s advocate and I take this upon myself. However, if it was not me who was always seeking these accommodations and if it’s the larger community that says – Do you think this accommodation could help your child? Can we do this for you? I think inclusion just gets a whole new dimension.