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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Does My Child With Special Needs Scare You?

So there I was, stuffing envelopes with the PTA moms at my older son’s middle school.  The other moms asked about my involvement at my younger son’s elementary school, and one person casually commented, “I heard there’s an autism classroom at that school that’s causing problems.  The autistic kids scream and scare the kids in other classrooms. It isn’t right.  They shouldn’t be there.”

I can’t say that I’ve ever “seen red” before in my life, but I definitely saw red at that moment. It took me a few seconds to regain my composure quietly while the other parents continued to chat.  “What do you think, Karen?  Have you heard those kids screaming?”

As calmly as possible, I answered, “Yes, in fact my kindergartener’s classroom is next door to the autism classroom.  I know the families, and they live in my neighborhood.  Their children have the right to attend school in their own neighborhood.”

I wanted to say more, but that was all I could squeeze out.  Now that I’ve had more time to process it, I realize that the same conversation is popping up everywhere as inclusion becomes the norm.  I think I have several possible solutions to the parent’s complaint…but none of my solutions involve moving the self-contained classroom to a different school, as the other parents suggested.

Here are my 9 steps to reduce the fear of students with disabilities – feel free to share with teachers, administrators and PTA parents as needed.

1. Celebrate Diversity

A diverse community is made up of people from different races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities.  Acceptance is the key to a supportive community.

2. Educate about specific disabilities and medical conditions

If a school has a self-contained classroom for a specific type of disability, then the school social worker or special education teacher can offer a brief presentation to answer students’ questions and concerns about their fellow students.  My younger son’s classroom shares a bathroom with the ASD classroom, so the ASD teacher visited my son’s class to explain the special needs of her students.

3. Educate families about inclusion

Many parents who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s are surprised and confused by the concept of inclusion in today’s schools.  Inclusion is not only considered a “best practice,” but it is also required by federal law to provide the “least restrictive environment” for many students with special needs.  School administrators can outline these points when presenting at PTA meetings or other parent meetings.

4. Create a sensory-friendly environment

It’s not just the students with special needs who have meltdowns in school or who have difficulty remaining calm during lessons.  All students benefit from a sensory-friendly school environment:

  • use natural lighting as much as possible
  • minimize interruptions on the school public address system
  • offer frequent, short breaks for exercise and fresh air
  • provide silly putty or other quiet fidgets for increased attention during lessons

5. Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS)

PBIS is an approach to behavior management that is based on over 30 years of consistent data from all over the world.  Instead of traditional punishment-based discipline, PBIS follows a philosophy of “prevent, teach, reinforce.”  Rather than focusing on negative behaviors at school, teachers direct their attention to positive behaviors and friendly interactions.

6. Functional Behavioral Assessments

If a student or group of students continues to disrupt the school routine, a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) becomes necessary.  An IEP team works together to identify the social, affective, cognitive and environmental factors that motivate specific behaviors, then the team creates a behavior plan to mitigate the behavior.

7. Peer-to-Peer Support

When typically developing students are matched up with students who have disabilities, something amazing happens.  The students teach each other life lessons that cannot be learned from a textbook.  At my younger son’s elementary school, more than 40 students volunteered to be Peer Pals for the 7 students in the ASD classroom, and many more students were wait-listed as Peer Pals.  Children are naturally curious about each other and want to spend time together.  Peer-to-peer support programs such as Peer Pals, LINK and Circle of Friends are proven to be mutually beneficial and highly effective interventions.

8. Address complaints publicly and transparently

What really bothers me about the parent’s complaint is that it’s based on rumor and hearsay.  These comments need to be brought to the light of day and exposed for what they are.  One parent did go to the school district superintendent to request that the autism classroom be removed from the local elementary school, and the superintendent came to the next PTA meeting to explain the history of the school’s special education programs.

9. Don’t be invisible

Advocacy is impossible if we’re invisible.  On the first day of school, I always smile and tell my children’s teachers, “You’re never going to get rid of me.”  Although I am limited in the amount of time I can volunteer at school, I make my presence known.  During Teacher Appreciation Week last year, I delivered flowers to the staff.  I often help the school librarian while wearing my “Ask Me About Autism” t-shirt.  When the elementary school was planning to build a sensory-friendly playground, I volunteered to write grant proposals.

Advocacy is the antidote to intolerance – that’s why I volunteered as the new PTA secretary.

Karen Wang

Written on May 29, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Stella

    I can’t help but wonder whether there would be even less “other-ing” going on if the kids with autism were being educated with together with their peers in the “regular” classrooms? A separate classroom doesn’t sound like full inclusion to me, though it’s a good step better than a separate school.

    • Galina V

      Stella, some children on the spectrum would not be able to cope in the mainstream class. I’m all in favour of the integrated schools, my son who has autism goes to one, but he’s in a small class, as he would suffer enormously from the noise in a big class, and he would never be able to settle there

  • Nelly

    The middle school I work in has a Life Skills class. You can tell which kids went to the elementary school with Life Skills because they don’t even react 90% of the time when a Life Skills kid gets loud. The kids who came from a different school get used to it quickly. The only time I’ve noticed a kid actually scared was when a girl known to bite lunged at her, but she just sniffed her, giggled, and walked away!

  • Sharon

    Peer buddies help with assimilation as well.

  • Lori

    I think it is good for kids to have contact with children who are “special”. We want to teach our children to be kind and accepting, and how better than to give them opportunities to interact with children who have disabilities.

  • kimberlychildofgrace

    My problem with LRE is that it assumes the regular classroom is the least restrictive environment. For some kids it is the most restrictive. My children really struggle when placed in a regular classroom. Not just because of the level of information but because of the anxiety level it causes.

  • Annette

    My daughter is in a 4th grade general ed class and I was able to work with her teacher on a informational presentation for her class. We were able to make it fun and the kids were fantastic! Some of the other teachers popped in too. It was great!

  • Eileen Barnes

    My son attends a school with a ‘autistic class”, he has autism….When he was mainstreamed in preschool, the “aides” ( all they need is act 33 &34 clearance here) held my son on her lap & kept him from disrupting the “other” kids…For the last 4 yrs he has attended the “autistic classrooms” & main streaming part of the day…He was even bumped up a grade & is 2 reading levels above his peers…Even tho he is in that class, he has many friends in other grades & classes…He is accepted by all & gets the intense learning he needs…Shame on anyone, who thinks they do not belong with their “normal” children…My autistic son grades above average for “normal” kids his age…So maybe some parents should focus on their own children rather than autistic children…

  • kathryn

    great post. especially like #7. I haven’t actually experienced the situation through my children, but I hope I do 1 day.

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  • John_Daly

    Celebrate Diversity? Come on. Why the PC crap. Has nothing to do with anything. Points 2-9 are dead on but this has nothing to do with diversity.

    • Nicole

      This has everything to do with diversity. People are often afraid of that which is different, and things they don’t understand. By celebrating the diversity and educating people about the things that make us different, we can reduce this fear and negative emotion.

  • melissa

    My son spent the last three years inclusively at a charter school 7 miles from our home. The first day some classmates were afraid of him. The principal addressed the issue and those same children who were afraid became his best advocates. They intervened if someone stepped out of line with a comment. They reported bullying to teachers when my son was a victim. We were all very sad as he will enter a new school now that he is in middle school. His entire school benefited from his inclusion. Shame on the parent who can not accept a differently-abled student. I believe in karma so I try to be kind to all but what will that person do when one day her child or grandchild is less than perfect all the time. or diagnosed with a special need.

  • Marilyn Pena

    I would like to add that I wish I could live to see where the non “special” kids learn the life skills to interact and adapt children with Autism or not other wise specified children. So that when these “normies” become adults they can not be fazed or be bullies. The non “special” kids are the ones who sometimes or most times judge, torment and make the environment impossible for “special” kids and people. There is even no tolerance for those with a lower learning ability at schools, jobs, government offices and hospitals. There are places where you would think people of the “normal” function can help and guide. Honestly I want to cry for special needs adults who are aware of bullying and are emotionally miserable. Sometimes people can appear almost “normal” but have a slight disorder or learning disability. My old boss would make me feel so horrible for not learning at his pace. I was never diagnosed with a learning disability but I am aware that I may have one.

  • Angela Mauro Lanzarone

    I actually wish that my daughter could be put into a classroom with her peers. She had no friends last year. While everyone in the classroom was being invited to each others birthday parties my daughter was never invited to any. She has bi-polar,adhd and is on the spectrum and is mainstreamed. She told me that the reason no one wants to play with her is that they are afraid of her. She was at a party once where there were 15 kids with autism, adhd, bi-polar etc. She was in heaven. They played great together and were all accepting of each without judgment. She’s only 9 years old imagine what she has to face for the next 10 years.

    • Gen

      Does she also have autism?

  • Gen

    Did you place your son into the autism school?

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  • AprilSandmeyer

    I’ve been hearing alot lately about HIPPA laws and how the schools are not allowed to tell their staff, let alone other students, about the diagnoses of special needs children! I first learned this when a special needs school bus attendant asked me, after quite a number of years of having my grandson, if he was BLIND! I was shocked when she told me that she’s not allowed to know the diagnosis of any of the children she escorts to school. I told her that the only reason we send him to school on her bus was so that he would be safer. By the way, he is 100% blind, autistic, and NON VERBAL, so he can’t ask for help if he needs it, and I want everyone to know that. Something is very wrong with this picture. HIPPA laws are getting in the way of safety.

  • Anna

    I am an autistic student. If anyone’s screaming, it’s my NT classmates.

  • Grace Warner

    I was glad to stumble across this because there really is not enough information around this specific topic. So thank you. I do have a question and would love your input & advice. My child is 5 and it has been brought to my attention that he has a real anxiety ridden fear of a student at his school that has autism. I just found this out as he hadn’t told anyone including his teacher until s couple days ago when he would not go into the cafeteria because he was afraid he would scream. I should mention my son is not autistic but definitely is sensitive to startling noises and specifically hates screaming. I’m starting to think certain noises are causing anxiety and I feel awful about the whole situation. We have had open conversations about diversity and how everyone on earth is different and to embrace the differences. I wonder if that’s why he didn’t tell anyone that he was scared of this child. It started to make so many things make sense- ex. He had accidents which never happens. And he adores his teacher and started to not want to go to school. He also will not walk past the boys classroom ( which is two doors down and you must walk past to get to the bathroom). So he started walking all the way to the office to avoid him. Now that we know why I’m trying to research what I can before putting anymore power into this fear. I want my child to feel safe and I know this young boy cannot help his outbursts. I also read about sensory/ auditory sensitivities and the link to anxiety can but isn’t always related to autism. So I guess I’m just looking for any advice on how to approach this. Thank you


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