Dear My Son’s Class: Introducing Your Disabled Child to a New Class

children wait for a bus

I transferred my son to a new school this year at his request. Not because we had problems at the old school but because his K-8 was slated to be collapsed into a K-5, and we’d be forced to transfer anyway.  Rather than moving to a big, dedicated middle school with “focus” classrooms of only students with disabilities, we wanted him to stay in an inclusive classroom with supports. He needs his peers, and I believe that his peers need him.

But this isn’t about my belief in inclusive education. This is about the request his new school made for an introductory letter. I’d written letters for the teachers before, but his teacher asked that I write one this year for the whole class.

I was a little worried that setting things up this way might be counter-productive and create distance rather than class unity. I think for the wrong teacher/class it might have been, but his teacher was on top of things. When the class heard the letter and suggested doing something “special” for him, she pointed out that it wasn’t about making him feel special. It was about making him feel included. And they saw him play by himself on the playground every single day, so perhaps they could start by making him feel included there.

They did. The school has been incredibly accommodating, as have his classmates, and I’m confident that we’ve found the right place for him.

In case you’re in the same position with your child, here’s my letter. Perhaps you could use it as a starting point:

Dear 6th graders,

I’d like to tell you about [my son]. You may know a few things about him already. For example,

[My son] loves video games, sports, LEGO, and Marvel and DC superheroes. He loves Harry Potter, Minions, and Finding Dory. His favorite snack is goldfish crackers, and he likes pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti, pho, and quesadillas. He gets super nervous around dogs, but he loves petting them once he calms down. He’s also very fond of his older sister, who is a high school student.

You may have also noticed he’s different. I’d like to ask you about a word you’ve probably heard before. Can anyone tell me what “diversity” means?

[ask for responses – hopefully, you get examples that include ethnic and cultural diversity as well as biological diversity in nature]

Another type of diversity is neurodiversity. In addition to having different skin colors and cultural backgrounds and being taller or shorter, people also come with different abilities and different brains. There are all sorts of neurodiverse people — some have different attention spans or differences in their moods or behavior. I’m willing to bet that you as a class are also neurodiverse.

[My son] has autism, which is a brain difference he’s had since he was a baby. Some of you may also have autism or know someone with autism. Nobody knows what causes it, but most scientists think it’s genetic — just a brain difference he was born with. Autism also has a lot of variation, so while you may know one autistic person, that does not mean they’ll be exactly the same as another autistic person.

Have you ever seen a lamp with faulty wiring? When the lamp’s wires get crossed, sometimes the lamp will flicker. The lamp has all the parts to make light, but sometimes the electricity isn’t carried all the way to the light bulb. In the same way, [my son’s] brain has the same number of brain cells (neurons) but sometimes the signals and thoughts don’t travel as efficiently as they should. We all learn things by making new neural pathways — like wiring new lamp lights. It sometimes takes him longer to learn things because he has to work extra hard to make those neural pathways.

You may notice that he has a hard time talking. He can understand a lot more of what you are saying to him than he can say himself because his brain signals get more mixed up when he tries to form words. You may notice that sometimes he also gets words like “I” and “you” switched around. It’s easier for him to imitate something you say than it is to try to think of a word himself, so it’s fine to ask him to repeat after you when he’s having a hard time saying a word.

You may also notice that he sometimes flaps his hands, spins, rocks, taps pens, or hums to himself. This is called “stimming” and it is one way that he grounds himself. He has a hard time processing all the signals around him —sounds, language, smells, and sights, and this is one way he adapts. It’s soothing. You might be surprised to learn that everyone stims sometimes — tapping fingers, bouncing knees, rocking in rocking chairs. Those are all stims! [My son] just has different stims, and sometimes they’re louder or bigger than the stims you see in neurotypical people. If he’s being too loud, try to see if he can switch to a quieter stim.

[My son] really needs your help as a class to be good examples and teach him about the world around him. And I know sometimes this is going to look very different or seem unfair. He might have a different work schedule or get a reward for working when you are capable of sitting quietly and working on things without any help at all. However, that’s the difference. You’re capable of many things that he is not, and over time, he may learn to be capable of those things too. Right now, he needs those modifications in order to help him succeed.

I don’t know what the future will look like for [my son]. He will probably need some form of help for his entire life, but we’re all working very hard to make sure when he grows up he’ll be able to work at a job of his choice and to make and keep friends. I really appreciate your help involving him in your class and in the school community.

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Marziah Karch

Marziah is a learning experience designer and writer from Portland, Oregon. She's written five books and has also written for WIRED, About.com, TechRepublic, and MAKE.
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Comments

  1. Schools are very much like prisons. Paul Graham goes into it in his essay “Why Nerds are Unprpulao”. It’s an interesting read, and can be found easily by web-search.

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