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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"