As you drop your 6-year-old at school, you notice another boy. He flaps his hands oddly and covers one ear. Your little boy turns around to say ‘bye’ to you. But this boy doesn’t turn around, despite his mother calling out his name many times. She notices several pairs of eyes, including yours, staring at her. She looks down and leaves quietly.
You see the same child at a school function. While all other children stand confidently to sing their song, he’s given a place in the corner. An assistant teacher stands close to him, watching him with hawkish eyes. Your eyes move to the mother sitting at the edge of her seat. She seems to be anxious. Your friend whispers, “Her son has autism.”
Then one day your child talks about the autistic boy. “Mom, nobody likes to play with him. He only plays with cars and puzzles. He doesn’t listen to teacher, and makes funny sounds. Sometimes he lies down on the floor in class. Teacher gets very angry with him. But he can do any puzzle, and he plays ‘Temple Run’ so well. He has the highest score in class.”
Dear parent, do you feel like you’re at a crossroads? What will you tell your child about this boy with autism? Consider understanding these two aspects:
A. Autism is not a disease
It is not contagious. It’s a differently wired brain. A person with autism learns differently. He understands what you say, even if he doesn’t speak.
B. What if he was your child?
How would you like him to be treated? Would you like his classmates to treat him kindly, or would you like him to feel like a misfit? Every child needs to be loved and accepted.
Dear parent, take this opportunity to teach your child about special needs. Your teachings right now can help him become a more compassionate, well-rounded human being. Teach your child to:
1. Accept differences
Each of our five fingers is different. So is every child, autistic or not. Children are taught in a conventional way. But each child learns differently.
One of my students is hyperlexic. He was reading words without understanding them from the age of 2. He is a visual learner. If he is taught using pictures, he understands a concept immediately. Teach your child to respect differences. You will help him develop empathy at a young age.
2. Be helpful
A child with autism has problems in certain areas. He might drift. He might find it difficult to return to class after recess. A helpful classmate can keep an eye out for him. Your child can be that helpful classmate.
At the age of 7, when Mohit went to school in Seoul Academy International School in South Korea, a group of girls would look out for him and play with him at recess time. I’ll never forget those beautiful girls with tears streaming down their cheeks on Mohit’s last day at school. Kindness goes a long way. Encourage your child to be a ‘kind classmate’.
3. Play with them
The autistic child in the opening story was good with puzzles. He loved his cars and iPad. Encourage your child to join him in those activities. Rest assured, your child will learn something new. Also, your child can invite the special child to play with him. He can make another child feel better and not lonely.
Remember, your child looks to you as his model. If you are large-hearted and understanding, your child will imbibe your qualities.
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4. Talk to them
Speak to children with autism like they understand everything, because they do. The internet is filled with testimonies by autistic adults stating they understood everything during childhood, even though they didn’t speak.
Speaking has nothing to do with understanding. Some children with autism speak a lot, some show need-based communication, while others don’t use words to communicate. This does not mean they don’t understand.
If children make fun or tease the child with autism, know that this sensitive child understands. It will probably scar him for life. Teach your child to talk to the differently-abled. Yes, it starts at this young age.
5. Don’t be mean
The child with autism may appear to be odd and different. Teach your child to not laugh or make fun of him. Every class has bullies. Children with vulnerabilities make soft and easy targets. Teach your child to recognize the bullies. Don’t gang up against the vulnerable child.
One of my students would have nightmares about his classmates. It was painful for him and his family. The foundations for building friendships and maintaining relationships develop at a tender age. Give your child a head start.
You Can Make A Difference
20 years ago, I was at a mall in the US. Mohit was jet-lagged and overwhelmed. He had a meltdown. Anil and I handled him the best we could.
I had the regular “concerns”: What will people think? Are they staring at us? Are they judging our parenting?
Nothing like that happened. Not one person stopped to look. They walked by as if it was normal. Nobody gave us advice. They went about business as usual.
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed several difficult situations in India with Mohit and my students. If a child has a meltdown on the street, at a restaurant, or at a mall, everybody stops to stare. A 100 people gather in five minutes. People offer advice without understanding the situation, which the parent doesn’t need at that time.
Do you know why those adults in the US didn’t stop by to look at us or give us advice? Because they were exposed to children with different needs in their classrooms as kids. Their parents and teachers probably explained the exact same points as the ones mentioned above to them. They were taught to accept and respect differences.
We can make this happen in India too. If each mother stands up and explains to her child. You can be that mother. Start with yourself. If each mother stands up, each child will stand up for the differently abled.
Let me assure you, you will gain more than you give. Your child, a future decision maker and leader of this country, will be an accepting, well-rounded individual with his head on his shoulders.The onus of bringing up your child well lies on you.