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Autism: A Lesson in Compassion

Teach your kids how to be accepting of fellow students with autism.

“Do you want to eat lunch with me?”

Those simple words might not seem like a big deal to most children, but as parents with children on the autism spectrum know, they can mean the world to their children.

Chances are your child knows at least one peer from school who is on the spectrum. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, three to six children out of 1,000 will be diagnosed with some form of ASD. Understanding autism has become increasingly important in our society and across the globe and it presents a significant opportunity to teach our children compassion through awareness.  

As a teacher, some of the most fascinating students I have encountered in the classroom are children who have been identified as autistic. Often, the negative stigma that follows them around comes from a misunderstanding of their behaviors.

Thinking about Autism Awareness Month made me think about all of the wonderfully hilarious, thoughtful, unique students I have taught who were on the spectrum.

A bumper sticker I once saw read: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met ONE person with autism!” This is so true! As with all individuals, children with autism have wonderful qualities worth recognizing and highlighting, unfortunately, some of these qualities cause them to be out casted in class. My responsibility as a teacher is to facilitate their acceptance in my classroom, and parents can help!

For children identified with autism, lonely solitude is often a reality of life. The simple explanation for this occurrence is that these individuals do not automatically pick up on even the most common of social cues.

Despite finding themselves isolated from others, they do perceive their peers enjoying friendships and understandably desire such relationships for themselves. However, without the ability to know how to go about reaching out appropriately, they need someone else to teach them how to take social initiative, how to relate to peers, and a compassionate classmate is the best person to teach them.

According to Kay Freeman of the Autism Society of America, being a buddy to a child with autism is the best way to help these individuals at school and in everyday life.   

Inspire and encourage your child to be that buddy, to reach out to his or her classmates who struggle making friends, and you will help your child become a better person and improve the life of a lonely child in the class.

If your child knows some of the most common characteristics of autism and how they might affect children in their class or school who might have been identified with ASD, then he or she can become a compassionate role model for the rest of the class.  

Common characteristics of children with autism:

  • Highly intelligent
  • Difficulty reading social clues and understanding social norms
  • Difficulty reading facial expressions
  • Poor eye contact
  • Uncomfortable with affection, including any kind of physical touches
  • Fixation on a certain subject, topic, or idea  
  • Easy irritability with changes in routine and expectations
  • Over stimulated by noises, smells, and light
  • Triggers: A child with autism can become upset over consistent things. Find out what the triggers are for the child.  
  • Everyone is different! Children with autism might exhibit all or some of these behaviors. Like all people, it is most important not to assume things about them based on our prejudices. Learn who your classmates are, what makes them tick, and then treat them accordingly. This sensitivity will make your child a leader in class and life.

Compassion in the classroom

  • Be a friend to someone who needs a friend. Watch this video on ‘Circle of Friends’ and how being a buddy can really make a difference.
  • See the world through their eyes. Help your child imagine how challenging a day at school must be for a child with autism. Appreciating how well their peer with autism does do in school, despite differences, will help your child appreciate the student.  
  • Don’t take their behavior personally. Compassion begins with understanding and knowing what makes children with autism tick. However, just understanding someone does not necessarily make children immune to the behaviors of that person. Patience, practice, and a good adult role model who knows how to relate to children with autism without getting offended by their social qualities is crucial to their acceptance.    
  • Be proactive. Ask the teacher! The teacher has an intimate relationship with the children and parents in her class. Certainly she is aware of the things that help make each of her students tick.  
  • Teach tolerance. Treat individuals with autism the way you would want to be treated, even if they do not know how to respond appropriately.
  • Talk about autism. Encourage the parent of the child to come speak to the class. Having the parent speak openly to the class opens dialogue and removes the stigma on that child. Speaking about the experiences of the child will also open up communication for discussing options to help support that child.
  • Get involved in your community! Contact The Friendship Circle at this link. You can also contact these other local organizations at these links to see how you can get involved! TACA: Talk About Curing Autism, Autism Speaks – facts about autism, Council for Exceptional Children.

Understanding others and their situations is the first step to being kind and compassionate.

The challenges that children with autism might create in a classroom setting are significant and must be addressed with openness and clarity, but the humor, fun, uniqueness and diversity that they bless the classroom with is under represented and underappreciated.

We will all benefit from the compassion required to help make the world of school a kinder and better place for children with autism.

Editor's note: Jennifer is an elementary school teacher of 10 years and a private tutor for students between the ages of 5 and 18 who struggle in school. She has master's degrees in education and in sociology, as well as a bachelor's degree in psychology. Her articles give parents tips for their children on how to navigate the "game of school."

Karen April 27, 2011 at 06:50 PM
Your experience and compassion with autistic children in the classroom and on the play yard is evident in your article. I hope many children become "buddies".
Tamie April 27, 2011 at 09:03 PM
What a terrific article! As a parent of a child with an ASD and an educator, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your insight and expertise in order to help other children and parents understand a little more about autism and how they can help our students navigate through the hidden social curriculum as it relates to school and everyday life.
Jennifer Luchesi Long April 27, 2011 at 09:21 PM
I am so hopeful that a little more awareness will help make school a safer, friendlier place for all kids to learn. Thanks for your feedback!
helen Davis April 27, 2011 at 10:47 PM
Jen, You are the one! You express my wishes, as well, to make school safe for all kids and educators. Awareness, and then education, is the key to many of life's fears. Thank you for always caring. Helen Davis
shawna April 27, 2011 at 11:59 PM
Jenny YOU are an amazing teacher and I am so proud to be your friend :) great article!!! I know that you have always been "compassionate" buddy to everyone when you were in school and you continue to do so as an educator as well xoxo
Suzanne Borgese April 28, 2011 at 04:29 AM
Jen, let's see: you are my colleague in extended curricular endeavors, you are my former site colleague, you work with one of my student's parent and , oh, yes, you ARE my son's master teacher!!! There is something so RIGHT in the world-you ROCK!!

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