When we asked (well, actually, insisted) that Gage be included in a gen-ed classroom, we expected that he would gain a lot of things from it: We expected that he would start to learn how to act in a gen-ed environment; we expected he would have many, many great peer models to help him learn the way; that he would start to learn how to take tests and complete classwork; to follow a schedule that wasn’t based on which child had the most intense needs at the time; we expected that he would start to build a platform of basic social skills upon which he could add more and more skills until one day he is able to be a productive and contributing member of society. We were fairly sure his classmates would be nice to him, because even though he was only allowed to be in the kindergarten classroom for 30 minutes a day last year, those kids were really nice.
What we were not expecting was someone like Iris.
I volunteer in the classroom every few weeks. I stay in the common area outside the class and the kids come out and read with me, one by one. They really highlight all of the things that are great about first graders — some shy, some confident, some boisterous, some perfectly behaved and some really trying to be. Most of them pretty funny, as six year olds can be. One of the more hilarious ones is Iris, who has more personality in her little pink fingernail than most people have in their whole bodies. As I got to know all of them, I felt so blessed that these were the kids who Gage was with all day, and so blessed that their teacher had set a tone of understanding, acceptance, and kindness (we really won the teacher lottery with her!). A few of them would always be there to meet Gage on the playground in the morning, including Iris. Pretty sweet.
Then, one day, a little note came home. It was from Iris’ mom.
“Hi there, Would it be possible for Gage to have a playdate with Iris? She has been asking for a playdate for about a month. Here is my number if you are interested…”
Was I interested????? Well of course I was. I mean, Gage had been invited to birthday parties before, but this was different. She wanted to play with him. Alone! She wanted to be…. his friend. I called the mom to set up a time, and tried to explain that if Iris could come for the last hour of Gage’s Saturday tutoring that his tutor could help with play skills to make sure that Gage played with her appropriately, and then she could stay for an hour of free play. And it would help Gage learn to play with peers and it would be great and so helpful to him. I said he wasn’t good at playing with peers and needed guidance until he learned.
This is where it gets good.
I don’t think it had occurred to Iris to tell her mom that Gage was autistic. It was sounding like maybe she didn’t know. When it became clear that Iris’ mom probably didn’t know, I tried to explain what Gage’s autism was like. She wasn’t put off at all. In fact, she wanted to know when they could reciprocate and have Gage over. I nearly dropped my phone.
On Saturday morning, Iris’ dad brought her over, armed with a Candyland game and a big smile. Gage and Iris played, they snacked, they read. Iris was in charge, and Gage was happy to do what she said. Gage, our sometimes solitary guy, wanted to hang out with her. The best part was when they picked out Mo Willems books and read to each other on the couch. They took turns. They alternated pages. And nobody had to use a token board to get Gage to do it. Our Saturday tutor was thrilled, and said that Iris could come back every week if she wanted to.
When Iris’ dad came back, he came in for a bit. We watched the kids and chatted a bit, and I commented how neat I thought it was that Iris wasn’t phased by the autism. “We talked about it with Iris last night,” he said. “Iris said she thought that is just the way God made Gage. She said God made him special.”
God made Iris special, too. Hallelujah for that!
Accidentally, Iris left her Candyland game. When I texted her mom to ask how we could get it back to her, she said: “She will just pick it up at their next playdate.” (Got that? The next playdate!)
This inclusion thing just keeps getting better and better.