With Your Child?
Dan Coulter, May 24, 2006
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My wife, Julie, and I were in
church before the service recently and a woman came up and told
Julie how nice it was that she'd brought our son Drew to their
Sunday School class last week. "You really can't tell that
there's anything." She didn't finish the sentence, probably
realizing how something like "anything wrong with him," would
Her heart was in the right place, but her confusion demonstrates
that we've got a ways to go in finding appropriate words and
phrases to describe the challenges of people with Asperger
Syndrome (which Drew has), with higher functioning autism, and
with similar conditions. I think, to her credit, she sensed that
the word "wrong" wasn't appropriate.
And she was right. Yes, Drew has Asperger Syndrome -- and
there's nothing wrong with him.
This is more that just simple semantics. It's complex semantics.
The words we use to describe people color our perceptions. Many
of the words used in association with neuro-biological
challenges can be traced back to a time when people thought such
challenges were a vengeful God's punishment for somebody's sin.
If there's something wrong with you, it suggests you're
different in a bad way -- and you're separate from what's
"right." The word "wrong" is also strongly associated with the
Our kids on the autism spectrum can be very different. Those
differences can be difficult, even heart-wrenching, but the word
"bad" doesn't apply. And our kids are not mistakes to be
discarded, excluded or fixed. They're people with challenges. In
that sense, they're just like the rest of us. Some just have
higher obstacles to overcome and sometimes they have to find
ways around these obstacles instead of climbing over them.
Too many folks see themselves as "us" and people with mental
differences as "them." And they can pass those prejudices on to
their kids. We've run into people who don't want special
education kids associating with their kids in school because of
fears the special ed kids might hold their offspring back. We've
encountered parents who don't want school districts to spend
money on special ed because they're afraid it might drain money
from "regular" or "gifted" education resources.
Getting angry doesn't help. Or rather, what helps is to get
angry enough to do something, calm down, and work to help people
understand that we're all part of the same community. We'll all
be better off when there are no "us and them" distinctions in
our community and all the kids are part of "us." The fact is, we
all benefit from projects and resources that help make people
with mild or severe mental challenges become as independent and
productive as possible. Just as we benefit from making typically
developing and gifted kids as independent and productive as
possible. These are artificial classifications anyway. I've met
lots of kids with AS who are also in honors or gifted programs.
The bottom line is that it's in all our best interests to have
as many of our kids as possible prepared to work and pay taxes
and as few as possible on public assistance. Giving each child
the assistance he or she needs now is an investment that will
pay off for everyone, and it's right in line with the American
philosophy of offering every child a free public school
The best way to foster that investment is to build a sense of
community. To reach those folks who are receptive and to
generate enough support to outvote folks who just don't get it
and who can't see past their own immediate interests.
When I was a kid, I got a lesson in community that I couldn't
fully understand until I was older. While in the sixth grade, my
friends and I used to take "bike hikes" and ride out into the
rural areas around Springfield, Missouri, where we lived. One
day, a friend and I were biking through a neighborhood of a few
houses on the outskirts of town. We saw a young man in his late
teens or early twenties acting strangely. He was walking down
the street, talking loudly to himself. Every few feet, he'd sit
down and scoot a ways on his bottom. He looked dangerous to a
couple of sixth graders.
My friend and I stopped at one of the nearby houses, told the
woman who answered the door what we'd seen and asked her to call
Her face full of concern, she looked down the street at the
young man and told us that he wasn't dangerous, he wouldn't hurt
anyone, and there was no need to call the police. He was her
neighbor's son and she'd call his mother to let her know that he
was outside alone.
I've thought of that woman from time to time and I increasingly
appreciate the role she played in her community. She was an
extension of the young man's family, caring about him and
looking out for him. She was a good person. But more than that,
she was a good person who knew her neighbors well enough to care
I've run into a lot of caring people since that incident. Sure,
I've also encountered people who are selfish and will never get
it. But there are lots of people who don't understand enough to
care because they just don't know enough about our kids. Chalk
that up to a society where people move a lot, work long hours,
drive places instead of walking so they often don't meet their
neighbors, may have minimal contact with school teachers and
staff, and may not even meet most of the parents of their kids'
schoolmates. I think a huge number of these people have the
potential to understand and
care if we just give them a chance.
And while we're on the subject of understanding, reaching out to
kids is particularly important.
As part of our business, we make videos that help students
understand classmates who are different. Some of the most
gratifying feedback we've received came after a psychologist
used one of our videos in a school assembly to help educate
students about Asperger Syndrome. After the assembly, a number
of kids came up to a student who has AS and apologized for the
way they'd treated him. For the first time, kids started sitting
with him in the lunchroom and including him in playground games.
The assembly helped establish a sense of community at the school
that was just as real as the community I rode into on my bike as
a sixth grader. It was confirmation to me that we have to use
every opportunity to reach for the best in people and help them
see the big picture.
You can help by talking to other parents about what kids with
"disabilities" are really like, by encouraging your school to
make presentations on inclusion to students and teachers, by
encouraging your PTA to make similar presentations to parents,
by joining with other parents to form support groups and to
lobby school boards to offer programs that help all kids --
including special needs kids, by actively supporting school
bonds that include resources for all our kids, and by
encouraging your local news outlets to do stories that show kids
with challenges succeeding.
These are all important steps in the crucial job of helping
people understand that kids can have all sorts of strengths and
challenges and, at the same time, have absolutely nothing wrong
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the INTRICATE
MINDS series of videos that help students understand and accept
classmates who have Asperger Syndrome and similar conditions.
You can read more articles on his website at:
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By
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