by Laura Trunkey
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: November 2018
In late August an article began to show up in my Facebook feed, shared by many of my friends with school aged children: “As the school year begins, please talk to your children about disabilities.” Written by a special education teacher with cerebral palsy, the article encouraged parents to tell their kids it was okay to be friends with kids who were disabled, and it wasn’t okay to tease them, or bully them or to leave them out.
The message is a good one, but sometimes it hard for kids to grasp the hypothetical. And while sometimes a disability has a tell—a kid in a wheelchair, a child who uses an iPad to assist them with speech—other kids with disabilities look no different than their (neuro)typical peers. Angus is one of those kids.
Many children with autism display self-stimulating behaviour (the repetition of physical movements or sounds), but Angus doesn’t “stim” by flapping his hands or rocking his body. He stims by flipping through science books quickly, reading the chapter headings under his breath. To someone who doesn’t know Angus, this behavior—which calms him down when he’s feeling anxious—simply looks as though he’s skimming a book. Angus rarely says hello when someone greets him, and won’t look people in the eyes, but many shy kids are no different. And if you engage Angus in a conversation about something he deems interesting, he’ll have plenty to say to you.
In other ways, Angus’s difference is more apparent. He struggles with fine motor skills, with interacting with his peers, with following directions that include more than one step. And things that may seem insignificant—a sudden change in the schedule, a misplaced book, another child skinning their knee—can lead to a meltdown of epic proportions.
Angus doesn’t look different, but he is different. And it’s a “different” that sometimes is uncomfortable and unpredictable.
But Angus has friends. Though starting a new school has been difficult in that regard, Angus has friends he’s picked up in kindergarten, in grade one, from our neighbourhood. He has friends he sees on a regular basis, that enjoy his company. They’re nice kids, all of them. They’re accepting, and flexible and kind, and though they’re all very different from each other, the one thing they have in common is parents who share those traits.
Yes, it’s important to talk to your kids about disabilities, but more important than what you say is what you do. When a mom talks to me about her child’s birthday in front of that child—what the activity is, and what I suggest she do to ensure Angus is comfortable—she’s teaching her son a lesson: sometimes modifications need to be made for kids, and that’s okay. When a friend’s dad sidles up to Angus at the beach and begins to help him create the dam he’s been working on solo, enticing the rest of the group to contribute, he’s showing his kids that Angus is worth playing with, and has great ideas. When Angus gets worked up while I’m packing up our gear at the playground, and a friend’s mom distracts him by talking about Harry Potter, she’s showing her daughter that there’s no need to be afraid of Angus when he’s upset. When a kid’s dad says hello to Angus by name every single morning at school, regardless of whether he responds, he’s saying: it’s important to be friendly with everyone.
This summer Angus boogie-boarded for the first time. At Chesterman Beach, his friend pulled him into the water and showed him exactly what to do. She turned the board into the waves. She moved Angus’s body so he was facing the right direction. He awkwardly tried to hold on, the two of them falling into the waves, laughing, splashing, over and over and over. She didn’t do this because she was coerced, or even asked. She wanted to.
Recently while playing at the park with a group of kids, Angus fell and started to howl. Before I reached him, his friend stopped his game and ran to him. He hugged him, he talked to him softly, then dragged him away to where they began a different game, the two of them.
There are so many things we’re encouraged to do to make our kids successful: more unstructured play, less screen time, more vegetables, less coddling. There are team sports and music lessons and second languages and math tutors to give your child an edge. Angus’s friends are already successful. I have no doubt they will become amazing adults, people who can find value in anyone, people who spend their lives lifting others up. And no stacks of parenting books or second mortgages were required to make them turn out that way. All it took was kindness.
Laura Trunkey is the mother of the amazing Angus, and the author of the story collection Double Dutch (House of Anansi, 2016). Find her at lauratrunkey.com.
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