I visited Camden’s 1st grade General Education class last year to talk about autism. His 2nd grade inclusion teacher was super supportive about having me come this year as well. Autism Awareness Month is a natural time to go into the classroom, but I can see how it would probably be more helpful for me to go sooner…after the students have gotten to know Camden a bit, but before the end of the year. They had a lot of good and sincere questions that they may have been wondering about for months.
Here is the letter that went home to the students. (It is almost identical to last year’s letter, as I haven’t found a book that I like better. Would love to hear suggestions if you have some.):
I had 45 minutes to share, and it went FAST! The kids were extremely attentive, kind and engaging! I introduced myself and we jumped right in with this 4-minute Amazing Things Happen video.
We went over the three main characteristics of autism:
1. social impairment
2. struggles with speech/communication
3. repetitive behaviors
I tried to make sure the students knew that I was sharing Camden’s autism. There is a saying that goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met ONE person with autism.” Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that has a broad range of what it looks like from person to person. Just because Camden likes/dislikes/does certain things, does not mean everyone with autism is like him. One of the challenges of autism is that it is an “invisible” disorder, meaning you can’t see it. If someone has Down Syndrome, or is deaf, or is paralyzed, you can see it. Many times, a kid with autism may appear to be a brat if they are having a meltdown. Maybe it looks strange to see them wearing noise-cancelling headphones at a basketball game. It might seem rude when they don’t respond to your question. Unless you know that someone has autism, sometimes people make assumptions.
We discussed some of the statistics of autism:
1. 1 in 68 US children have autism.
2. 1 in 42 US boys have autism.
3. I didn’t go over specific numbers on wandering/drowning/bullying, but
discussed that the rates are significantly higher for those with autism.
I shared about Camden’s early days, and we talked about the difference between classic autism versus regressive autism. Camden falls into the classic autism category, as he missed milestones early on. We received in-home early intervention services from a speech therapist, occupational therapist, behavior therapist, nutritionist, and physical therapist. Camden was an extremely fussy baby with significant gastrointestinal issues and a sleep disorder that still persists to this day. I would share concerns, and was told “he’s just a boy”…”you are worrying for nothing”…”just let him be him”…”one day you’ll be begging for him to be quiet”…etc. Our in-home therapists, our pediatrician (who never even gave us the 15-month screener for autism), friends, and family members felt that my concerns were unfounded and that there was nothing to worry about. ONE friend told me it was a good idea that I was getting Camden evaluated as she did see some red flags. So for my family (and numerous others who share similar stories as ours), when I read that the rates of autism are going up because of better diagnosis, I have to admit that is not our story. Camden does not have high-functioning autism where you are trying to decide if he’s just quirky or if it really is autism. If you’ve seen or met Camden, there is no doubt that he has very significant delays in each of the three main areas of autism.
I shared this quote with the students:
We talked about some people who were perceived as not being smart because they couldn’t speak or had altered speech, and we discussed how frustrating it would be to have people discount you or assume you aren’t smart simply based on your speech or lack thereof.
My uncle is deaf and was in special education during school despite being extremely intelligent. He has his doctorate in Education and is an amazing educator. He was teacher of the year for his district last year.
I showed this picture of Carly Fleischmann and told the students a little bit of her story:
Carly was diagnosed with severe autism and speech apraxia and the age of 2. She is nonverbal. Doctors said she would never progress beyond the mind of a small child. At the age of 10, she made a huge breakthrough when she typed “HELP TEETH HURT” on a computer. Her parents and therapists tried to get her to communicate through typing, but she refused for months. One of her therapists, Howie (pictured above), decided that if she wanted something, she would HAVE to type it. They knew she had the ability, but she needed to be pushed. It worked!! Today, she types with one finger and she has found her voice! She still struggles with OCD and communication, but she has proven that you can’t judge a person just from what you see. Her IQ is over 120 (above average) and she has a talk show called “Speechless.” Carly now prefers to use a communication app called Proloquo. You can learn more about her story in this 7 1/2 minute 20/20 report.
I showed a picture of Niko Boskovic and we talked a little about his story:
Niko is a young man who is non-verbal with autism. He started using a letter board (through the Rapid Prompting Method) after he and his mother attended a Rapid Prompting Method workshop in 2015. Niko’s mom always knew and believed that her son was smart…she just didn’t know how smart until he was able to communicate with the letter board. Before the workshop, Niko had been in special education classes. I saw on his blog where he posted a picture of himself on the first day of school the year that he started attending general education classes. Here’s what he said: “Today is the first day of school. I am looking forward to it because I want to learn so much. Happiness is knowing that I am late to the game, but I can still play.” 🙂 I was amazed by this 5 minute video highlighting Niko’s story.
I gave the students two examples of when Camden’s voice went unheard.
Camden takes leftovers in his lunchbox, so I package it up when I am making dinner. One night, I had put his entrée, fruit, and drink in his lunchbox, put it in the fridge, and then we sat down to eat. That night the pears were disgusting! YUCK! We couldn’t handle the taste or texture, so we threw them out. The next day, when I picked Camden up from school, his teacher mentioned that he didn’t want to eat his fruit, but she had him finish it since she assumed he was just protesting. As soon as she told me, I felt horrible, as I realized at that moment that Camden still had the gross pears in his lunchbox that I had packed the night before. Can you imagine? Having to eat something gross, but not being able to tell someone (or get someone to listen) that you did not want to eat it? But since you struggle with communication, you were forced to do what you were told. That would be hard. *Apparently, Camden’s classmates mentioned this story several times to his teacher today. Please know, that this was no one’s “fault.” It was unfortunate. I wish I had thrown out the pears, but it slipped my mind. Camden’s teacher had him eat the pear, because I encourage the staff to have him eat since I send him with a reasonable amount of food. 99% of the time, Camden finishes his school lunch with no problem.
Camden went through a time when he loved watching the Cars movie and playing with his character cars. One night, he was playing with his vehicles from the Cars movie and I heard him say something about “Doctor Hudson.” I was making dinner, but briefly explained to Camden that the car’s name was Doc Hudson, not Doctor Hudson. He kept on playing. This happened at least three more times until several days later, Camden brought me his dvd player, and said, “Look.” The screened was paused on this picture: It’s as if Camden were telling me, “Look lady…I know WAY more about the Cars movie and characters than you do. You make the dinner. I’ll know the stuff. Please listen to me. Just because it’s hard for me to speak does not mean that I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
And I wonder how often things like that happen for my kiddo.
We read the book My Brother Charlie. It’s written from the perspective of an autism sibling. Colorful illustrations and it’s good about discussing some of the challenges and joys of having a sibling with autism.
I received the students’ questions ahead of time. I found their questions interesting and insightful. Some of the questions were easy to answer. Some of them I had to take my best guess. And some of the questions don’t have easy answers.
- Does Camden like sports? I would venture to say that he enjoys watching sports more than playing them. But then again, he sure looks like he’s having fun in PE! He likes being in the pool, riding his adaptive bike, and going to Top Golf. If monster truck driving is a sport, then that might be his favorite to watch. =)
- What does he do in speech? Camden had his private speech session the day before, so I brought real-life examples of what he’s working on. Things like pronouns, prepositions, choosing the object that does not belong, using clues to guess an object, etc.
- How do you get autism? I made sure that the students knew that autism isn’t contagious. It’s not something you catch like strep or a cold. And that just because they may feel like they have one characteristic of autism (like maybe social situations are really hard), that does not mean they have autism. They would know by now. I touched on the difference between classic autism and regressive autism. But mainly I shared that we don’t know for sure how people get autism and that researchers are working hard to learn more.
- What would Camden like to play with me? Camden LOVES recess, and will get upset on the way to school if it’s a rainy day and he can’t go out. He enjoys racing sometimes. He likes playing on the playground equipment. Oftentimes, he enjoys watching other people play. I’ve seen him at the top of the slide just looking out and taking it all in. Like with any friend, it’s important to try and read his body language. Does it seem like he’s smiling and having fun?…then keep it up! Does he seem frustrated and like he needs some space?…then maybe give him a little time. Feel free to ask a teacher for suggestions.
- Why does he say “no” when I ask him a question? That’s a good one! My best guess is that Camden’s routine is so important to him, that if he hears a question like “do you want to go to the gym?,” he stresses that his schedule is going to change. Past and future tense are also hard concepts for Camden to grasp, so if you ask him, “Did you go to Medieval Times last night?,” he will say “no thank you” for fear that you are going to make him go NOW.
- Why does he make noises sometimes? That’s another good question that is somewhat of a mystery. I’ve heard some people with autism say that it’s to self-regulate when there is a lot going on around them. For Camden, he seems to do it most when he’s happy and excited. Sometimes he can be noisy when he’s scripting or reciting lines from movies, commercials, or books. He’s always working on memorizing something, and he will script it until he’s got it down.
- What is his favorite thing to do? On normal days he certainly enjoys electronics (his iPad and dvd player) as well as riding bikes, jumping on the trampoline, going to the park, racing his remote controlled car, swinging, etc.
- Why doesn’t he stay in our class the whole time? Our campus has a program for students with autism that’s called STC, or the Structured Teach Class. While inclusion time is really important for Camden to learn communication, social skills, and to work on academics, he seems to learn new information best in a 1:1 or small group setting. Special education students have what is called an IEP (or Individualized Education Plan), where goals are made specifically for that student based on his or her needs. Here’s the way our district defines the STC program: The Structured Teaching Class (STC) is a centralized, self-contained instructional arrangement designed to meet the needs of students who have characteristics associated with autism. STC provides a high degree of structure, a low student to staff ratio, and systematic use of a variety of research based interventions to enhance instruction, develop communication skills, and manage student behavior. Students have the opportunity to participate in many academic and non-academic activities with their non-disabled peers. STC classes are located on several general education campuses throughout the District.
- Does he like to watch movies? YES! Camden likes the Toy Story movies, Cars, movies about trains and vehicles, and he loves educational videos. He often will set the TV or video to closed caption so that he can learn the words while he watches. If Camden is in charge of the remote, it can be hard to watch with him as he likes to rewind his favorite parts or the parts he’s trying to memorize over and over and over again.
- Where is his favorite place to go? Hmmm…he really enjoys places like Great Wolf Lodge (actually, any hotel) and Medieval Times, but I would guess that camping and the beach are his most favorite places.
- What is his favorite food or place to eat? Camden is on a special diet due to allergies and gastrointestinal issues, so he doesn’t love a lot of the typical foods and restaurants that many kids enjoy. He does love mangos and chips. He typically eats a meat, veggie, and fruit for meals.
- What does Camden like to do when he gets home from school? Well…most days Camden has what is called ABA therapy after school. He has people that work with him on communication, play skills, social skills, academics, etc. After therapy, he gets some free time on electronics before we eat dinner. Here’s a picture of Camden with one of his therapists. He was working on his speech for the Living History Museum. We have a room set up in our house that’s kind of like a classroom.
I gave the students a 4×6 picture of Camden. The photo had some possible similarities and potential differences listed. We talked about how we are all special and unique, and how we all have things that make us different.
I shared this 2-minute video about Dillan, a teenager with autism who is nonverbal. Thanks to the iPad, Dillan is able to communicate. I am so amazed and excited to see stories like this of children who are able to find their voice in this world.
I printed this booklet titled Growing Up Together to send home with the students. It’s an easy read that touches on what is autism, how kids with autism act, why children with autism may act a certain way, what causes autism, and how to be a friend to someone with autism. Here are the tips on how to be a friend:
When you become a friend to a person with autism, you both learn a lot from each other. Here are some ideas that can help you be a better friend to a kid with autism: • Accept your friend’s differences. • Know that some kids with autism are really smart, just in a different way. • Protect your friend from things that bother him or her. • Talk in small sentences with simple words and use simple gestures like pointing. • Use pictures or write down what you want to say to help your friend understand. • Join your friend in activities that interest him or her. • Be patient – understand that your friend doesn’t mean to bother you or others. • Wait – give him or her extra time to answer your question or complete an activity. • Invite your friend to play with you and to join you in group activities. Teach your friend how to play by showing him or her what to do in an activity or game. • Sit near your friend whenever you can, and help him or her do things if they want you to. • Never be afraid to ask your teacher questions about your classmates with autism. • Help other kids learn about autism.
My time was up, and I looked at the precious faces of those 2nd graders and I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for being kind and respectful toward Camden. I thanked them for being good role models for him. I told them how much it means to me to see Camden at school with his peers…to see him included and learning and having fun.
We are so incredibly proud of Camden and who he is! He works really hard and has come so far. He is dearly loved by his people. =)