All kinds of brains invited.

Posts tagged ‘autism’

What We Didn’t Expect From Inclusion

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.

Gage and 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.

Reading some Mo Willems

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.


How We Dare

Three great kids who deserve to be treated equally!

Three great kids who deserve to be treated equally!

I have been getting a lot of emails lately. Nasty ones. That little picture we put up of Gage holding the sign saying that he deserved to go to school has reached over 2 million people so far, so of course you are going to get a whole spectrum of people who feel that they need to speak out against a 5-year-old boy being included in the public education system, and about us being terrible parents for using his picture to help demand it. If you have read any of the comments under the photo, I am sure you will know what they say. Mostly, they go a little like this:

“How DARE you! How dare you think that your disabled child belongs in a classroom with normal children. Your child belongs in a separate place with others of her (sic) kind. She will RUIN the education of the normal children. You are selfish and you are in denial! You are living in a dream world…..”

And that was one of the nicer ones.

How could people be so mean and make assumptions about a child they had never met? Did so many people not realize that autism is a spectrum and in most states autistic kids are included in mainstream classrooms? Do people still equate autism with people so dysfunctional that they need to be institutionalized? Why did people so vehemently attack our desire for Gage treated equally to the other children? I felt like I was indeed in a dream world, only it was one where I was living in the Jim Crow south and autism was the new black.

And then I realized — people must not really know what inclusion is. We sure didn’t before we started this journey with Gage. When Gordon and I first starting thinking about the idea of Gage being included, our biggest concerns were not for Gage. Our very first question was: “How will Gage being in a mainstream classroom affect the other children?” We wanted Gage to be included, but never at the expense of someone else. A friend pointed out to us the inclusion dynamic that had been present in our older son’s Kinder class 2 years earlier — there had been a few boys who could just not stay in their seats. They had a need for movement and they might have had some special needs (hey that sounds kind of like Gage!). Rather than punish them for not sitting, the teacher brilliantly just… let them stand, and move more, and be hyper as much as she could. Because she knew it would help them. It is called accommodation. Hmmm, we thought, that is right, those guys were very active, and did anyone in their K class NOT learn the alphabet or phonics or the calendar because of them. Did they RUIN anyone’s kindergarten education? Um, no. No they did not.

But Gage, we thought, he ‘s more than just a mover. He isn’t great at talking yet, and he certainly doesn’t do a lot of eye contact, he tenses up sometimes, he has a lot of input coming into his brain, all the time. How can they accommodate that? An aide, we were told. An aide. Just like kids who can’t walk need a wheelchair or kids who have poor vision need glasses, some kids with autism need a one on one aide. It is called accommodating a disability. And it is a normal practice in other states. Just not Nevada, apparently.

Then we started researching. We thought inclusion was right for Gage (remember he is not intellectually disabled or violent, and is generally a mellow guy) but we wanted evidence. We wanted to be sure that we were doing the right thing and wouldn’t be hurting the other children. We found articles, hundreds of them, that supported inclusion. We found scholarly research papers, books, interviews, lectures. We found out that this inclusion thing we had been thinking about was alive and well and working all over the country! And there were other crazy people like us! But they had letters after their names — letters like PhD, MS, MEd. People who’d been to a lot more school and thought about this a whole lot more than we had. People who thought inclusion was the best way to integrate people with disabilities into society so that they could lead productive and happy lives — and it didn’t stop there. We found a lot of research that said that everyone did better in school when children with disabilities were included. Everyone! (Yes, that means the “normal” kids too!) One source for this assertion: ‘Inclusion as Education Reform’, a research article by Caustin-Theoharis/Theoharis (2010), which shows that test scores improve for all students when all learners are included. Thanks to Lauri Hunt for bringing that one to our attention in her article: “Can You Have Inclusion Without Acceptance”.

We did, of course, look for the other side — the articles, lectures, and books about how horrible it is to include all kinds of different people. We wanted to know what the opposing arguments were. Could inclusion really be this one sided? We found a few mentions of the two big fears — Inclusion will ruin “normal” kids education (which has been disproven in many studies); and the big one… money. If inclusion is done correctly, it is supposed to be cost neutral to providing special schools and pull out programs. People are still afraid it will be too expensive though. To us, this is like being told that our child in a wheelchair can not be included because there is no budget for wheelchair ramps, or our child who doesn’t speak English needs to sit in a corner of the room and be ignored because ELL teachers are just too expensive. Who decides? Every child deserves an equal chance to learn and be included. Why can so many other programs be afforded and our child’s program can not? Who decides that he is not worth educating?

We also found some other interesting articles about how it was right to exclude people who are different. The one that struck me the most was an article about making people who were socially inferior be separated from those who were socially superior. It was an article about Plessy v. Ferguson. Remember that case? It was the one in 1896  (you might remember from your history books) that enshrined the concept of “separate but equal” racism until Brown v. Board of Education righted things in 1954. When I learned about those cases in 8th grade history, never, never, never did I think that I would be fighting the same fight, 117 years later, for my little boy who has trouble communicating. Truly, you can replace the word “black” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case with “autistic” and it is chilling. We are fighting the same fight, just with different fighters.

Jeff Sell, in an article for the Autism Society, explains inclusion in a nutshell:
Full inclusion is a set of strategies aimed at ensuring that all students, including students with significant impact of disability, are fully integrated into the general educational setting and have access to the general education curriculum. There are many positive effects of inclusion practices among both students with special needs as well as non-disabled students. Research has shown positive effects for children with disabilities in areas such as academic gains, improved communication and social skills, and increased positive peer interactions. Positive effects of inclusive educational settings among non-disabled youth include the development of positive attitudes and perceptions of persons with disabilities as well as improved scores on academic standardized tests. To meaningfully implement inclusion, however, teachers and administrators must be fully committed to the principles underlying inclusion practices, and also have the appropriate training, professional development and ongoing supports to successfully transform school environments.

That’s what we want. Exactly.

Beyond Awareness and Acceptance. It’s Time For Equality


Getting a picture with both boys looking at the camera — no easy task! 

April is Autism Awareness Month, and today, April 2nd, is Autism Awareness Day. You might be aware already that my 5-year-old, Gage, was diagnosed as autistic at age 2.5. He wasn’t talking, wasn’t gesturing, wasn’t great at eye contact, and would sit in his room and look at books for hours. I googled “toddler not talking” and started to get worried when all kinds of autism links came up. Our pediatrician blew us off when we told him these things. “Wait until he is 3,” he said. “He is a late bloomer.” But I was afraid he was wrong. I called Gage in to early intervention when he was 26 months old to get him evaluated. A 4 month waiting list later, it turned out I wasn’t just a paranoid mom. I was right. It hurt to find out. All that Gordon and I knew about autism was Rainman, and a distant memory of a news segment featuring a kid rocking in the corner and banging his head. Was that was Gage was going to be like? Would he be institutionalized or live with us forever? We had no idea. He was such a lovely child. No trouble really, just no language and a few things that were quirky. Suddenly, we were the parents of a… disabled child. An autistic child. What did that even mean? We felt like we had just been told that we had to climb Mt. Everest, and we had zero mountain climbing experience, and we were not even anywhere near the base camp.



2 years after his diagnosis. Still Gage. Still an amazing kid. 

Since then, we have read a lot, listened a lot, learned a lot. Autism is not what we thought it would be. It is different that having a typical child, not better or worse. Just different. We appreciate everything more, take less for granted, and celebrate the small victories. It is scarier, though, because we do not know what the future will hold for Gage, and there is shocking discrimination against autistics. For instance, if Gage needed a heart transplant, there is a good chance he would not even be put on a waiting list. Someone, somewhere, has decided that autistic people are not worth saving, that their lives are not as valuable because they are different and (according to these deciders) they must not have a very high quality of life.

And so we fight. We fight to make the world better for Gage. We fight to educate people. We fight for equal treatment. 1 in 88 people are now estimated to be on the autism spectrum, maybe 1 in 50 according to newer research. We are not going away. We are not a fad. Adult autistics, who 20 years ago might have been silent, unnoticed, or shut away, are communicating with the world like never before. We are so grateful to them, because they open up windows of understanding and are slowly letting the light in on this often misunderstood diagnosis.

Autistics are different. There brains are wired differently from the majority and differently from each other. They are as unique as we all are, and when you have you brain wired differently from “neurotypicals” (people who typically wired), you never know what your different wires are going to touch. Some autistics can’t stand being touched, some are sensitive to light, some are intellectually disabled, some are geniuses. I am not an autism expert, but I can tell you about Gage, and how his autism affects him. I hope that by trying to understand Gage, you will understand all autistics better, even though Gage is just one bird in the flock.


Gage loves movement. Pretty sure this was the best 10 minutes of his life, so far. 

Gage is mellow. I often refer to him as “the best one” (out of my 3 children) because he is so easygoing. I have seen him get angry once in my life (He was 3 and Griffin The Older was bugging him). He has never hit, sworn, pulled hair, or shown any other violent behavior. He has never lied and has never talked back. (He started talking when he was 3.5 and is not a huge talker, but communicates what he needs.) He is the only one who does chores without fuss. He is the easiest to get up in the morning and is so cute when he swaggers to the shower naked and sticks his hand in to see if it is warm yet.

He is a hugger. Gage seeks pressure and likes to be “strapped in to the world”. When I am riding in a car, if I don’t have my seatbelt on, I feel like a marble in a jar and I need to get my seatbelt on as fast as possible. I think Gage feels like this — like a “marble in a jar” — all of the time, because of the way he is wired. This is why he seeks hugs, and likes to lean on you, or a couch, or a floor, or a wall. He will use you as a seatbelt to strap himself to the world. He gives hugs freely, and will stop what he is doing to come give me a smooch most of the time when I ask. When he gives me a kiss, he grabs the back of my head and brings me to him. It is sweet and contemplated and one of the best things about him.

Gage is active. He is a mover. He is a jumper. He used to jump in his crib for hours. He will pogo around the playground, again, we think to help him feel more stable in the world. He loves the rope swing in the backyard, roller coasters, trampolines and airplane rides from his dad. He loves the movement and the pressure that gravity provides. Sometimes he tenses his whole body and balls up like a skier going downhill, we think to reset his place on the earth.


Hurricane machine. A huge hit. 

He still likes to play alone sometimes, and sometimes he plays with Griffin, who is 7, and Gibson, who is 3. I am impressed daily by my children, who are so kind to each other. Gibson doesn’t yet realize that Gage might be a little different. He is totally normal to her. He is just Gage. Griffin is wise beyond his years when he talks about Gage and autism. They are good kids. They love each other, and they like being together — all 3 of them. I am thankful every day that they will all be here for each other when Gordon and I are gone.

Gage is a great eater. He is the only one who will finish his plate without coaxing, and then finish anyone else’s plate who needs help. He is a tall kid, too — 99th percentile for height and 50th for weight. Gage is a full head taller than some of the kids in his class, even though his June 26th birthday makes him one of the youngest. We are grateful that he is so gentle. He is extremely healthy and strong and has only been sick twice in his life. If he had been born into my grandfather’s farming family in 1903, I can picture him being the best farm hand of all of my great-uncles, because he is so strong and he’s going to be so big. According to the height charts, he might be 6’ 7”.


Gage’s speech was late to develop, but the iPad (invented just at the exact time we needed it) amped up Gage’s communication abilities. 

Gage makes a little noise sometimes. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it is not a scream or a yell, but he makes a syllable and hangs onto it. He does it when he is excited and happy. It is part of who Gage is, part of his autism, and it doesn’t bother us. It bothers some people though. Sometimes they are rude enough to let us know, and I wonder if these same people would tell someone in a wheelchair to “just walk” the way they say Gage needs to “just be quiet”. He also laughs easily, at appropriate funny things, but he laughs longer and more exuberantly than most people do. That bothers some people, too. I see it as a gift.

He loves play areas — Chuck E Cheese, kids’ gyms, bounce places. He loves to run around and jump and look at the video games. He has an amazing sense of direction. He tries to direct me to go to Chuck E. Cheese if we are within a few miles of it by saying “Turn left here! Chuck E. Cheese’s!” from the back seat. He asks to go to play areas a lot. He knows which freeway exits we need to take to get to them, and gets irritated when we don’t exit at the right place.

Gage’s communication skills are still developing. He will tell us when he wants something, when he is hurt, what he is sad about. He is not a conversationalist yet. He uses language as a tool. There is a reason for everything he says. He does not always answer when we ask him questions, but he is getting better at it. He understands everything we say. Despite not talking so much, he has a large vocabulary,

He is still not great at eye contact. We are used to it, but it bothers some people. They think he is not paying attention since he is not looking at them or speaking to them. He is, but he is also paying attention to 20 other things, and his brain isn’t wired to filter down to one channel yet — remember he is just 5. I explain it to people like this: Imagine you walk into a television store and every television on display is on a different channel, and all are very loud. ONE of the televisions is asking a question, but all of them are at the same volume, AND there is also an air conditioner blowing cold air, a shiny object gleaming in the corner, a shag carpet between your toes, brightly colored walls, the smell of a garbage dump, the smell of cupcakes, the smell of pizza. And the television asking the question gets frustrated because you don’t answer it, or look at it…. and decides that you don’t belong in that television store anymore. Gage is working on filtering things, on answering and looking at just one set of input. He can do it with practice, but he needs opportunities to practice. We are fighting to give him those opportunities.

Gage is smart. All of those hours looking at books? He was teaching himself to read. He knows his colors, shapes, numbers, phonics. He can navigate our computer easily, and if he can’t find what he wants, he will google it. He likes design programs and looking at graphic logos. He loves the iPad — “Where’s My Water” is his favorite thing on it right now — it is all about spatial logic and Gage is good at it. His spelling is great, too, and if we can’t understand what he is saying (his diction is not great) we have him type it out for us. His favorite book is “Pinkalicious” which I find sweet. He loves letters and patterns, and will play with puzzle letters for fun — spelling words and mimicking logos.


Stanford would be lucky to have him. 

We have a Stanford tee shirt for him. It’s my hometown college, and we don’t dress him in it to be ironic. We think he has it in him to go there, or M.I.T., or UNLV or wherever he wants to go. if he is only given the opportunity to learn what comes naturally to typically wired people. If he is taught in the way that his autism requires. Gage is not being taught the kindergarten curriculum this year, because one of his teachers says it is not her job. (edited to add: We have since found out that it WAS her job, and that she was just refusing to do it. And that she then went into other kids’ IEPs and campaigned for kids with learning disabilities to be excluded from gen-ed. Sadly she is still teaching and spreading her bigotry and ignorance.) The other one is a long-term sub. Gage’s teacher in the autism program — his teacher of record — is gone. As of yesterday, his new teacher of record teaches a different group 3 to 6 year olds in a different classroom. She is good. She is in another classroom, though. We like the sub, but she is not an autism specialist, and she now is in charge of 11 kids from 3 to 6 who are all completely different and have different needs. Gage keeps coming home with the same two worksheets — which I am sure are good for the 3 and 4 year olds, but not for Gage, who deserves to be taught the k curriculum. For months now, one worksheet where he traces his name, and one worksheet where he draws lines. By the way, he can write his name without tracing it, and has been able to do so for a while. It’s not neat, but it is readable. His fine motor skills are lacking. It’s part of his autism. There are good teachers at his school. A good speech therapist. A good OT. There is compassion from the staff. The principal cares. Can they change the way Gage is being warehoused? No. Can they just say, “You are right, Gage can be included like he would be if you lived an hour away in California.” They cannot. It is a system error. Their hands are tied and they can only do their job according to the rules. The system needs to be changed.

Is Gage being prepared for 1st grade? No, because he is autistic, and they can just send him to the next special class, where he will be segregated even more (no typical peers in that special class). He can go from special class to special class, culminating in the high school special class, where this year, the autistic kids are busy making greeting cards and picking up trash from the classrooms where typical kids get to learn physics, Shakespeare, and computers.

Gage has 3 hours of tutoring every day. Usually from 3 to 6, every day but Sunday. He is learning skills to help him communicate better and fit in to our typical world. It is based on “applied behavioral analysis” therapy and as of last year it is covered by insurance, thank goodness. It is frustrating for him sometimes to have 3 more hours of school, and we are careful to listen to the way he is being spoken to by the tutors, to be sure they are kind to him. They always are. We are lucky. Some autism therapists are not nice. I am sure it is easy to forget that these are not bad kids, they are just kids with different operating systems. Some autism therapy centers still use shock therapy though, and people think it’s ok because “that’s the way it has always been done”. It terrifies us that places like that still exist. We will never send Gage to a place like that.


Gage accepts Griffin’s quirkiness. Griffin explains Gage’s autism to people who sometimes stare when he is stimming. 

So what do we have here — a mild mannered and gentle kid who loves to hug and seeks out touch to feel more in place in the world, an active boy who has copious amounts of energy and is often in motion, a smart child who has so much potential. If he is only given a chance.

And what are we being told? When we ask for Gage to be educated to his full potential? For Gage to get the support he needs because he has a bona fide disability? We are told no. We are told that the best thing for Gage is to be segregated. That his kind of people have a place, and it is not near the majority. It is shut away in a class with others like him only in label, not necessarily wired like him. Maybe they are afraid of light, or loud noises, or maybe it hurts them to wear clothes. Maybe they scream all day because it is the only thing in their life that they can control, or maybe they have never said a word at all. They are all so different, and they are all segregated, because they are autistic. Because they are disabled in that way. And they have no chance to learn how to be in our society from the children who are one day going to run it.

Right now, Gage is allowed to be with 25 amazing, compassionate, impressive typical peers for 90 minutes a day. 25 chances to learn the way that society expects him to act, 25 chances to build bridges to the neurotypical world. And they, in turn, are given a chance to start building their bridge to Gage, and other people like him, who are different. They are given a chance to learn what cannot be taught with a worksheet or a book — that in our American society, we all deserve an equal chance and that we all have potential, and that different does not mean less. 40 minutes at the start of the day. 20 minutes at lunch. 30 minutes at the end of the day, for art or PE or whatever the special of the day is. That’s it. That’s all. The rest of the day he is shut away with a loving teacher, two nice aides, and eight other children, aged 3 to 6, who share his label, and two pre-school aged peers too.

If I were over 100 years old, I would remember when women couldn’t vote in this country, because we were considered different and less equal than men.

If I were over 80, I would remember the way Jews were treated all over the world, and how millions of Jews were exterminated for the crime of being a different religion.

If I were over 70, I might remember when African-American children were not allowed to go to school with whites. I would remember the “separate but equal” water fountains and “whites only” clubs. I would remember how abhorrently they were treated, because they had different skin color.

I am over 40, and I will remember when gay people did not have equal rights. And I will witness that inequality finally being made right. It is happening now.

And I will remember when the last equal right is afforded. I will remember when, finally, all people are treated as equal, no matter how different they are. No matter what sex, or race, or religion, no matter who they love and no matter if they are disabled. Different is not less. It is time for that idea to become universal. Segregation is not ok.

Gage needs to be with us in our world in order to learn to succeed in it. The time for Gage (and other autistics like him) to be shut away is over. The time for just being aware is over. It is time for equality. It is time to accept Gage for the awesome kid that he is, and realize that as much as he has to adapt to living in our world, we need to meet him halfway and start to adapt to living in his. It is time to include everyone.