During each spring, tens of thousands of students check their email or standard mail waiting for an acceptance letter from colleges. For thousands of middle school students, spring brings acceptance letters from private high schools. Parents in certain locations throughout the country seek acceptance into special pre-school programs for their young children. Individuals of all ages hope for acceptance into groups or other activities. The idea of acceptance is nothing new. We have seen it throughout the history of humanity. The idea of not being accepted brings concern and sadness and may even cause feelings of failure. Acceptance is an important part of any community and can help to establish higher levels of diversity and success within that group.
A few years ago, we moved from April being the month of “Autism Awareness” to “Autism Acceptance.” This came about because one can be aware of another person, but not accept them for any number of reasons. With the large number of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, acceptance of who they are is important to maintain a socially healthy community. Those who push back and fight accepting these individuals often do not understand that many individuals who may have had undiagnosed ASD have provided amazing insights into the world because of their “uniqueness” or “idiosyncratic” approach to life. Some people fear a label and do not give that person a chance to demonstrate what they can add to life.
Several years back, I was contacted by some consultant colleagues for insights on a project they were working on with a district. The district was moving toward having a strong inclusive approach to their student population and was developing a plan and budget to properly support faculty and students. The seven-person Board had final approval and it looked like it would be a close vote as two members were opposed simply because of costs for the professional development. Two members were former educators and were very positive about the movement. So, both sides had the opportunity to present the pros and cons of an inclusionary program. The only argument against the plan was fiscal in nature. I was asked for insights on proper training and documentation because of work I had done internally with schools in the 1990s and early 2000s.
On the night of the public Board vote, both sides had one final time to share their side. Each side did and the crowd was asked to remain silent while the vote began. One of the three Board members who was undecided offered to vote first with his rationale. He shared his status as a parent of two students as well as a citizen concerned about doing what was right. He then went on to share that although the inclusion of students was important, he was going to vote against it because he did not want his children to “catch Autism.” Chaos arose in the meeting, but his vote was cast, and the other two undecided folks voted along with him in fear of something that wasn’t real. That district voted down inclusive classrooms because of being labeled without knowing anything about it. Fortunately, two years later a new superintendent entered the district and was able to put through a resolution with proper funding and training for “modern classroom teacher support and training.” Inclusion was able to be introduced in that way.
Events like that demonstrate why awareness is not enough. Too often, individuals making decisions are not aware of what actually happens in the classrooms. This is especially evident in our politically charged environment today where people assume they “know education” and “what really goes on” because they went to school. We have to put ourselves in a situation where these generalities and labels are pushed to the background while the individuals and the great things they bring to the community are in the forefront. One way of doing this is to highlight the accomplishments of all students side-by-side. Create videos and materials that surround the amazing work done by students, making sure that neurodiverse students are featured with their neurotypical peers.
When we look for examples, think about some of the students on the autism spectrum who may be excellent actors or actresses. Be sure to use them in some of the advertising for shows or for recruiting others into the fine arts. Look at some of those individuals who may have other conditions and still make a positive difference in activities throughout the school. Be sure to have these students along with other students as examples to the community of the positive things being done by the students.
Create community events like “Talent Evenings” with performances from the bands and choirs surrounded by art and pottery from student portfolios. Have the actors and actresses perform a short piece while speech and debate can mirror some of their competitions. I mention all these areas as various districts have shared with me how their neurodiverse students are thriving in these settings – something that the larger community may not be aware of at all!
We have heard of using the Universal Design for Learning principles for arranging classrooms and other educational settings. Keep the idea of "universal" in mind when highlighting the efforts of our students. We have experienced some of our students who may be on the autism spectrum becoming great athletes in sports like basketball, cross country, soccer, and volleyball. We don’t have to promote their condition, but we do have to promote their accomplishment. This way, we are designing a platform where individuals are assessed on what they have accomplished.
The question might arise surrounding those students who may be in programs to give them life skills with the goal of transitioning into the workforce. Celebrate them as well. Offer evenings and weekends when the community can interact with them as well as with those in standard vocational programs. Look at what dishes can be cooked and serve those without distinguishing one group from another. Have some students work together to build something that can be presented to the community. Inclusion comes from the acceptance we have of one another. The way to break down some of those barriers is to highlight what can be done as opposed to how individuals are seen. By starting within our schools and programs, we can develop acceptance which can then be modeled for the world outside of our school walls!