Inclusion is defined as the practice of equal access to opportunities and resources.
But in everyday life what does it look like?
Is simply having a child with exceptionalities present in a setting with typical peers inclusion?
No. Not unless there are supports in place for the child to thrive in that setting.
It’s surprising, but even activities geared towards children with special needs may not necessarily be inclusive? We have ‘tried out’ several special events for autistic families and have had to leave because they missed the mark on what our child needed to participate.
And let me tell you, nothing leaves you feeling defeated quite like an event geared towards autistic children and it does not work for your child. It makes you wonder where do we fit in?
So let me tell you about real inclusion and the magic that is happening in Tyson’s grade three classroom.
Let me start by saying I have always been a little skeptical when it comes to classmates including Tyson?
I don’t mean to be negative but I have seen firsthand kids walk past him and not even acknowledge him with as much as a wave or a smile.
I get it. It’s hard to make the effort each and every day when the child on the receiving end does not reciprocate.
So even when his teacher ensured me all the kids loved him and were so kind to him, secretly I sort of doubted it. There … I said it!
Recently, Tyson went to a classmate’s birthday party at Get Air and when we arrived, each student that ran by him said hi. It made me a little emotional and I could feel the tears welling up.
For parents not in this world that we live in, they may not get the significance or even understand how much ‘hi’ meant to this momma.
Tyson does not have a typical childhood – he does not have kids come over after school for a play date but is in therapy each day until supper time. He does not have friends knocking on the door asking him to come out to play and he has never been invited to another child’s house.
And I’m not telling you this to feel sorry for him or sad, as he is a very happy little boy. His life is just different than many other children his age. And so other kids saying hi and acknowledging him as just another little boy is kinda a big deal to me.
Back to the party ….
At one point as the kids were jumping and bouncing everywhere, Tyson made his way to the surfboard suspended on a rope apparatus. And guess what, another student went over and joined him on it. And then another student. They were all happily playing together.
And they were all chatting away to him, even though they understand he can not speak back.
This was truly one of the happiest moments in my life. These kids see him and accept him for who he really is.
This year, one of the goals in Tyson’s ISSP was for him to increase his overall use of his communication iPad and to express his thoughts (opinions, interests, likes) using his device. In school, this could simply be saying “hi (insert classmates’ name)”.
Partway through the year, it was decided to help foster this communication, a student in his class would verbally ask him a question and he would respond using his iPad. To “set him up for success” (school buzz phrase) we planted questions that we knew Tyson could answer.
Side note: answering questions is very difficult for Tyson and for many children on the spectrum. This is a skill we have been working on at home, in therapy and in school for several years and it’s still a work in progress.
After brainstorming with his lovely teacher, we decided to change it up.
So for the past couple of months, during the morning routine, Tyson and two other students are given a topic (ie preferences for activities, TV shows, seasons) by the teacher and everyone is using the communication iPad to respond.
Not just Tyson.
Not just his teacher.
But everyone in the small group is speaking using the communication iPad.
Tyson is beginning to learn how to have a conversation as his classmates model conversation using his device.
The other children are working on their typing and spelling skills, all while learning how to use a program designed for nonverbal individuals.
But the learning that is occurring in this grade three classroom is beyond academic – the kids are gaining an understanding of alternative ways to communicate, how much effort it is required for Tyson to participate in a conversation, and how to be a friend and include someone who is a little different than them.
And they are all, Tyson included, working on patience and turn-taking.
And during this time, Tyson is getting to know his classmates and they are getting to know him. An opportunity that would not present itself, without this initiative.
This was clearly articulated when Tyson missed school due to illness and upon his return, his desk with filled with cards each student had made that showed they truly know and care for him.
When we changed Tyson’s curriculum at the beginning of the school year, resulting in him spending most of his day in small group setting with an Instructional Resource Teacher (IRT), my biggest concern was his lack of opportunity to spend time with his neurotypical peers.
Tyson still joined his regular classmates for the morning routine, along with music and physical education but it was not the ideal time for working on social and play skills. So when Tyson’s homeroom teacher suggested that he come back early from lunch*, to spend some time in the regular classroom, to say I was elated was an understatement.
*(Tyson has come home for lunch every day since kindergarten. He did try briefly staying in for lunch once a week a couple of years ago and it did not go so well.)
So after Easter, we sent our little guy off to spend the full day in school with the idea that half of the lunch break would be spent in the regular classroom for lunchtime play.
These kinds of opportunities can only happen when you have a teacher that truly understands how key these experiences are for Tyson.
So for the past couple of weeks, Tyson has been spending some time ‘playing’ with his classmates.
For those of you that don’t know, Tyson has never had an interest in toys. We had worked on play for years in ABA but it was always really challenging for him.
And when Tyson is playing, he requires 1 on 1 support to help him.
So during lunchtime, two kids are selected each day to play a matching game or put together a puzzle with Tyson.
To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes.
A change in routine, coupled with doing a non-preferred activity, sounded like a bit of a disaster to me.
But it has been going beautifully.
Each day I get a note from his teacher telling me what they played and how it went. And from what I am told, the children are enjoying it too.
I’m not sure if these little children realize what they are doing for my little boy but I am truly grateful.
These boys and girls are truly inclusive to Tyson.
It’s not a place.
It’s not a feeling.
It’s an action.
I hope these experiences in this grade three classroom playing with a little boy with serious communication delays and social impairment, forever leave an imprint on the hearts of these children well into their adult lives.
And to the teachers (Ms. Randell-Dawe, Ms. Samson, Ms. Toope) and the student assistant (Ms. Loveless) that make this all possible, I could write an entire post on each and every one of you. You have shaped Tyson’s year beyond measure and for that, we are grateful.