Kids with autism are too often systematically excluded from their communities and that costs everyone
Becoming a valued member of their community should be the norm for kids – but for kids with autism, it’s too frequently not the case.
The media is full of stories about parental struggles to get their kids with autism included in the larger community. Stories of exclusion from the public school system, restaurants, stores and airplanes are commonplace. ‘No one came to my kid’s birthday party’ has become somewhat of a genre in autism circles. And if you know any autism parents, you’ll know their children are regularly excluded from extracurricular activities or field trips.
Kids with autism are too often systematically excluded from their communities and that costs everyone.
Here’s what real inclusion looks like:
Over the years, we’ve had many calls from our son’s school – addressing his anxieties, learning challenges and inability to sit still and focus for long periods. Our son, Casey, has autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder often characterized by rigid and repetitive behaviours, difficulty with social communication and uneven intellectual development, among many other challenges. Regular participation in an integrated public school has not always been easy for him.
So getting a call from Casey’s school was not unusual. But this was a good day.
The teacher told me that Casey went to his weekly choir practice but the choir master was running late. Normally, choir starts with a warm-up. The master sings a line and the kids sing the line back in a call-and-exchange format.
The choir master finally arrived but she was still trying to get organized and the kids were getting restless. Unprompted, Casey stood up and sang the first line of the warm-up – the master’s usual line: “Stand up,” he sang quietly.
All the kids settled, then stood and sang in response, “Stand up.” Then Casey sang the next line, “Feet apart.” The kids responded, singing, “Feet apart.”
Casey led the choir through their entire warm-up as if it was the most ordinary moment. The choir master stood back, amazed, and watched the little magic happen. It was a moment of community and Casey was an integral part of it – heck, he was the ringleader.
Evidence shows that meaningful peer interactions with typically-developing kids offer those with autism significant social and intellectual benefits – and benefits those who interact with them.
A meta-analysis of peer mediated interventions examined 45 distinct studies conducted over several years and concluded that teaching typically-developing kids to mentor and befriend those with autism was “highly effective” at promoting lasting positive social interactions. This was true across genders, age groups, settings and kinds of activities targeted. It was found to be most effective in natural play settings versus clinical settings.
The studies ranged widely from establishing a buddy system – pairing a neurotypical child with an autistic child (peer networking) – to peer mentoring (children teaching children) and group play, where all the children in the group work toward a common goal. The results weren’t just temporary – they had potential long-lasting effects and helped seed the ground for improved language skills, adaptation to other integrated settings and more positive and long-lasting relationships with peers.
So kids with autism benefit tremendously when their community includes and engages them meaningfully in natural play and learning. But what about the typical peers?
Turns out, they too like and learn from it. In a study that engaged typical peers in the social learning of kids with autism, the children were surveyed afterward. Eighty-three per cent said they “enjoyed it very much” while 17 per cent said they “enjoyed it.” Teachers also reported the benefit of students helping each other, valued the promotion of tolerance and understanding, and felt it could reduce bullying.
So teaching all kids how to interact meaningfully with others is real community building and has benefits for all.
We’ve been fortunate that Casey has been part of an integrated public school that practises community building daily. It’s not just part of their pedagogy, it’s part of their value system as educators. Casey’s taking control of the choir that day wasn’t just a demonstration of his leadership abilities – a pleasant surprise for us all – but a demonstration that he knows he belongs and the other kids do, too.
By Kathleen O’Grady
Kathleen O’Grady is a research associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University, Montreal, and the mother of two sons, one with autism.