Different, Not Less

 

“What’s wrong with your brother? Why can’t he talk?”

Ethan looked up at the little girl at the park who asked him this question and said, “There’s nothing wrong with Caleb. He CAN talk, but just not the way you and I do.  He’s different, but he’s a lot of fun and I love him just the way he is.”

When I heard the little girls question I cringed and my motherly instincts almost caused me to jump in and answer for Ethan since I thought that it might be a hard thing for an eight-year-old to explain.  I was so glad that I held back because Ethan’s answer brought tears to my eyes.  I was so proud of him for sticking up for his big brother and for helping to explain to his new friend that although Caleb is different that does not mean that there is something wrong with him. 

I led a small group last Spring for mothers of special needs children and one night we watched the HBO film “Temple Grandin” based on the true story of Temple Grandin’s life.  Temple is now an adult, but the movie covers the struggles she had growing up with Autism and how her mother fought long and hard to make sure she got the education she deserved.  I love the quote from Temple’s mother when she tells a teacher that although her daughter had Autism she didn’t want her treated as if she were stupid.  “She is different, but not less” Temple’s mother explained to the teacher.

Dwight and I have learned over the years that instead of trying to “fix” Caleb and make him conform to the world’s definition of “normal”, we need to embrace his unique personality and special gifts and meet him in his world.  We have found that by focusing on what Caleb CAN do instead of what he can’t do helps us see him as the special and amazing child that God has made him to be.

The best way we can help others to accept children with Autism is to increase awareness of what Autism is (and what it isn’t).   Each year Dwight and I go into the school and talk to Caleb’s classmates in the Fall and educate them on Autism. We talk about how Caleb is like them in many ways : He watches Spongebob Squarepants, he loves to go swimming, and  his favorite food is pizza.  Next we talk about the ways that Caleb is different and explain his sensory issues and why he sometimes gets overwhelmed when there are a lot of sounds and distractions.  We also tell them that Caleb can sometimes become frustrated when he can’t communicate and ask them how they would feel if they couldn’t tell someone when they needed a snack or wanted to watch their favorite TV show.  We explain that this frustration may cause him to cry or have other behaviors that they may not be used to.   We also teach the students ways that they can include Caleb so he feels accepted and alternative ways they can communicate with him. 

The more children (and adults) learn about Autism the more they will come to accept the differences of those with Autism and realize that they are pretty “cool kids” to hang out with.  Caleb has made some great friends at school this year and all his classmates have been so accepting.  They will give him a high-five or fist bump and even run up and say “Hi” to him when they see him at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s or the movie theatre.   Caleb’s teacher and his aides have gone above and beyond to make sure Caleb has the same opportunities to learn as any other student.

Today is World Autism Awareness Day … A day set aside for the people to learn more about Autism and what they can do to help individuals on the Autism spectrum and their families.  Take time to learn that children with Autism are not retarded or stupid. They are beautiful and smart and have so much potential!   There is no limit to the obstacles these special kids can overcome when they have teachers, peers and family members who support them , believe in them and love them just the way they are.

You can learn more about Autism and Autism Awareness Day at www.autismspeaks.org

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