When my daughter Sabrina was in first grade, the other children started to ignore her. She would try to say something, but the other child would not understand and just walk away from her. Some started to call her a baby due to her severe speech issues. After wiping away a few tears, I asked the teacher if I could come in and talk to the children about the situation.
As part of my intention to advocate WITH my daughter, I asked her what she wanted the kids to do differently. She wanted two things: not to be ignored and to be understood. Her wishes were the foundation of our conversation with the kids and the teachers. Since the kids were young, they did not need to have a lecture on her disability. They needed to be heard and to be partners with Sabrina in communication.
With Sabrina by my side, we all sat on the floor in her classroom. Like most people, the kids had been subtly taught not to talk about differences. They knew it was impolite to stare or ask about disabilities. That was part of the problem, so the first thing I did was state facts. “It’s hard for Sabrina to speak clearly,” I told them. “But that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say. She wants to be understood just like you do.” And then I gave them the power: “What could you do to understand her better?”
The result was magical and brought tears to my eyes. The kids interrupted each other in their excitement to share their ideas. When her classmate Lillie suggested she do sign-language (and then I asked her if she knew sign-language so she could understand Sabrina), I could practically see the light bulb go off as she deepened her understanding of being a partner to Sabrina. Micah offered to teach her the new dot-language he had developed. Emma put her hands behind her ears so she could hear her better. Then Emily shared that what she always does is listen carefully and then ask Sabrina to say it again if she doesn’t understand her. The teacher suggested asking Sabrina what the first letter of the word she is trying to say is, or ask her to write it down. Brilliant.
By the end of the brainstorming session, the kids felt much more capable of being caring communication partners to my daughter. The students had strategies to try. They also had freedom to talk about her speech issues — it was no longer a secret (that everyone knew). Sabrina started to get more invitations for play dates and birthday parties. She was seen as a full classmate.
Another mom I worked with went to talk to her son’s 2nd grade classmates. Her son Jason was non-verbal. He was easily frustrated and affected by autism. He often hit or pushed his classmates. When his mom talked to the class, one thing they needed was to be able to share how scared they got when he lashed out. That was the secret they held in. They needed permission to be afraid and once they had that, they also felt they had permission to take action. The students felt they had more control over their own feelings. And that translated to them putting limits on Jason’s actions. They started telling him not to hit or push and giving him more appropriate ways to connect with them. They played tag with Jason but would stop and walk away if he hit them. Everyone felt more relaxed, and that also helped Jason stay regulated.
Partnering with classmates is the goal of talking to them about your sons or daughters differences. As children get older — say 4th or 5th grade — they may have some questions about the diagnosis. That natural curiosity is also in your child, and is a sign to start talking to them about their own needs. It’s all part of the journey of advocating WITH your child to help them become an adult who knows who they are, how they learn and how to work with their differences.