It sounds simple. Talk to your children, we say. Teach them compassion. Show them tolerance. Guide them to a place of understanding. Tell them that people are different. Foster in them an appreciation of the diversity of the human experience.
Maybe not so much.
The big lessons might not be so difficult, but what happens when it gets grittier? What happens when the muck of the day-to-day gets in the way and the real-life details complicate the conversation? Then what?
My dear friend, April is the parent we wish they all could be. She’s the one with the open mind, the overflowing heart, and an abiding desire to guide her children well. She is aware; she is sensitive; and she desperately wants to do everything in her power to support kids like ours. She is bright and articulate and as thoughtful and careful as a parent as she is as a friend.
I say all this not to make April blush, but to make the point that there is probably no one better equipped to recognize and handle a tough situation than her.
But even April gets stuck.
Because this stuff isn’t cut and dried. It’s messy. And when there’s nothing to go on but what your first grader is telling you, it can be downright confounding.
April has generously agreed to let me share an exchange that we had yesterday about her daughter, Molly*, a neuro-typical first grader. I am grateful that she’s allowing me to share it because I think it’s important, both for all of us to see these issues from a different perspective and to get us talking about how we might help guide the parents of the children who interact with our kids.
There are good people out there who want to help. What would you tell them?
Molly mentioned to me tonight that there is a little girl in her class that keeps repeating to her, “Hi, my name is Hope*.” She said she does not say anything else and will not stop saying it even when Molly asks her to. Molly seemed frustrated and confused. I did my best under the circumstances with the facts she was reporting but other than that I know absolutely nothing about little Hope.
What do you think I should do? Ask the teacher for guidance? Reach out to Hope’s parents for a play date? Open house night is tomorrow so I may meet Hope’s parents there. I mentioned a play date to Molly and she seemed anxious about it because she said she cannot get Hope to really talk to her.
I do not want to set up either child for a bad play date but you know my mind is spinning …
I told you she rocks. Anyway, here is what I wrote back. By no means do I suggest that the strategy that I suggested is the ‘right’ answer. It was ‘an’ answer. And no, I don’t use capitalization in personal e-mails. Sorry, Mom.
… not every parent, especially of the little ones, has necessarily evolved to a place of acceptance and/ or is ready to tackle a conversation directly acknowledging their child’s differences. since you don’t know where the parents may be (and you also don’t know the situation other than through the eyes of a fellow student) i think it best to start with the teacher.
now, as for the approach with the teacher ..
it can get sticky in terms of confidentiality issues, so you’ll want to make sure that you don’t appear to be even inadvertently asking about a diagnosis. instead just focus on your desire to help your daughter navigate what might be a challenging situation in a way that supports this little girl. tell them that you’d love to invite her over if that would be appropriate, but would like some guidance on how to make a play date successful for BOTH of the girls.
truthfully, if it were me, i’d likely just tell the teacher all of it. i’d tell her that you have a friend whose daughter has differences and that you are very sensitive to the issues and you really want to be supportive but you’re not sure how to do it. ask if she thinks the parents would be open to a conversation or how she thinks it best approach them. i tend to go with honesty and full disclosure and then ask for help. makes it far less awkward than trying to dance around the real questions. i think the key is making sure that it’s a private conversation with the teacher, then come back to me and i’ll happily help you decide how to proceed based on what she tells you …
Further proof that she rocks, in case you’re not already on board (and yes, she even capitalizes) ..
… I will make a point to greet Hope’s parents [at Open House] tonight but with no agenda other than to see if I can lay the foundation for some natural rapport that may be useful down the line.
Also, in the moment [with Molly] last night – I panicked a bit but stumbled through it ok. I feel the need to revisit the issue with more thoughtful advice. I wish there was a post on this with a loose script that I could have fallen back on. Sounds lame, I know. I think you may have mentioned good picture books on this issue in the past. I am going to see if I can find them and read them with Molly because I think I was speaking over her head a bit and not meeting her on her level …
Since I didn’t have time to compile a list, I sent her the link to the book that I had put together when Brooke was entering kindergarten.
There are certainly many ‘real’ books out there now.
But you may have noticed that all of those books have the word ‘autism’ in their titles. It can get sticky introducing the word ‘autism’ to a neuro-typical six-year-old as a means of explaining the behavior of a classmate who may never have heard the word themselves.
My conversation with April made me wonder yet again how we can expect to enlist the understanding of other kids and their parents without open conversation. What if Hope’s parents don’t want to say anything because they are concerned about ‘singling her out’ or ‘saddling her with a label.’ (I have no idea, of course. This is entirely hypothetical, but follows what I have found to be a pervasive way of thinking in our community.) Unfortunately, Hopes’s behavior has already singled her out. That’s what autism does. It stands out. Neither autism’s gifts nor its challenges tend to hide well. Which says to me that we can’t either.
Whether or not we are the ones to label our children, they are being labeled. Personally, I much prefer ‘Autism’ to ‘Annoying’ or ‘Stupid’ or ‘Misbehaved’ or ‘Spoiled’ or ‘Disruptive’.
These conversations are happening, with or without us. So how would we have them go? What would we have parents say to their kids when they want to support our children but they don’t know where to begin? What would we like them to do?
WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE SAID TO APRIL?
I would be grateful if you would leave your thoughts in the comments.
ed note: I’d also greatly appreciate links to your favorite books for children on this subject. They don’t necessarily need to be autism specific; I’m just looking for stories that teach our kids to understand and celebrate their differences. Thank you!
ed other note: Children’s names have been changed, as always.