Ensure Autistic Children Participate in Non-Academic Programs

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basketball girl. basketball girl

Have you ever read those articles about a kid with autism who is a successful member of a typical sports team, choir, youth group, or community organization?

Have you ever wondered why those particular kids were included with everyone else, while you're always being told 'it's not fair to the other kids,' or 'why doesn't he try that special needs program down the road'?

You may assume, reading such articles, that the kids described are very high functioning, talented individuals.

For example, you might assume that the young woman with autism who is part of the high school basketball team was included because of her outstanding skills in team sports.

But how many kids with autism do you know who have strong gross and fine motor skills, a terrific ability to anticipate team members' actions, and almost no problems with social communication?  If you're like me, the answer is -- very few to none.  That's because autism is a disorder which often involves difficulties in gross and fine motor coordination, and always involves challenges with nonverbal communication, and social communication!

So what's the deal with those kids who -- somehow -- become part of typical groups and activities?

Inclusion, in theory, occurs at the institutional level. Schools, recreational leagues, youth groups, and other institutions are supposed to decide "we want to include people with special needs." Then, also in theory, they create universally accessible programs and venues -- and reach out to the wider community to say "hey, you're welcome to join us!"

That's a fine theory. And, in some cases, it's actually true. Most of the time, though, when inclusion is on an institutional level, it's because the institution has made physical changes (ramps, braille signage, etc.) to make themselves more accessible to people with physical challenges. In part, that's because the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is very specific about what's required to make public facilities accessible for people with physical challenges.

The ADA, however, is much vaguer about what's required or even preferred for people with cognitive, sensory, social, or behavioral challenges.

As a result, it is a rare institution that actually figures out what's needed for people with non-physical challenges, puts necessary changes in place, and then reaches out to welcome people with, for example, autism...  ADHD... Tourette's syndrome... Sensory Dysfunction... nonverbal communication disorder...  or any of a raft of other disorders which affect a huge number of people of all ages.

On the other hand, it is a rare institution or school program that actively rejects anyone who is able to participate in its programs or facilities without disrupting the experience or creating an enormous amount of extra work for its staff.

So...  why are some kids included in while others aren't?  The answer usually lies in the autistic child's parents, and at least one champion willing to "sponsor" non-academic inclusion in the school or organizational level.

  Here's how it works:

  1. Mom and Dad decide they want inclusion for their child in a particular area of interest (art, sports, music, etc.).
  2. Before asking for it, they analyze the barriers to inclusion (behaviors? listening or speaking skills? physical skills?).  They determine that their child could be a valued participant in the particular activity with the right support.
  3. They figure out what kind of support their child will need, and how that support will or could be provided without huge expenditure of time, money, or strain. That may mean that they themselves provide "shadow" support, or that they themselves will pay for an aide if one is not easily available or affordable for after school or weekend hours.
  4. Mom and Dad go to the relevant person in the organization (someone who is known to be open to inclusion and interested in championing it) and say, in essence, "I want my child to be included.  He/she is capable of doing what everyone else is doing, with support.  Here's how support can/will be provided.  Whaddaya think?"
  5. The internal "champion" agrees, meets the child, feels confident in the support, and says "if the administration agrees, I'm all for it."
  6. Mom and Dad go to the administrative leaders (ideally with the champion) and say: "We've worked out all the details, and the relevant person in your organization is ready to say yes.  It will take exactly no effort on your part.  Whaddaya think?"  99 times out of 100, the administration is savvy enough to know that they have nothing to lose -- and a lot of good PR to gain.  So they say yes.
  7. Suddenly, a child with autism is an included member of a group that has never included a person with autism before. The child has the support he/she needs, and the enthusiastic interest of the coach, director, or instructor involved. Amazingly, he or she is successful.

Does this mean that any has "overcome autism," or that the institution is now "autism friendly?" Nope. But it does mean that the ground has been broken -- and the next family that comes along may need to do a little less hoeing before hearing a "yes."

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