As we struggled to choose educational paths for our son, Greg, we never wavered from our belief in inclusive practices. The law supported us by ensuring the least restrictive environment as the best choice for children who had special needs. Greg’s autism was extensive in its restrictions on his speech, comprehension and ability to communicate his needs and problems. However, he had tremendous abilities that a resourceful classroom teacher could tap into to make the inclusive educational setting a valuable experience for both Greg and all of the other children in the classroom.
Greg’s talents extended to his willingness to interact with other children, his desire to show others his art talent and his ability to do tasks that he enjoyed to completion. It remained for Jay and me to convince classroom teachers as Greg got older (and the academics got harder) that Greg indeed learned in their classroom when afforded the opportunity to sit and listen even if he didn’t join in a class discussion. From 5th grade on, occasional teachers wondered if Greg was benefiting from their curriculum, but Jay and I believed that Greg learned. We didn’t see the evidence of the learning until unusual times farther down the road when Greg connected something he’d heard at school with something he saw or experienced at home or out in the community. He learned how to thread a sewing machine and make pillows, he delivered announcements to middle school classroom teachers and he participated in regular education gym classes. Nevertheless, it was difficult to convince teachers who had their own beliefs about inclusive practices that a special child could profit by his contact with normal children and even teach valuable lessons of compassion for special children to other children, something that they would carry with them forever.
Inclusions changes lives. It’s as simple as that. When I begin to speak to college classes on autism and inclusive practices next month, these three words, inclusion changes lives, will be my theme. Greg’s life changed. He has become a productive member of society, a happy young man who works at a workshop outside Harrisburg. In addition, he lives with three other men in a group home, society’s humane way of helping special individuals live as independently as possible in a non-institutional setting. Greg thrives at his “new house” doing his own laundry, keeping his room clean and helping with other chores. We regularly bake for the men at his “old house”. If I’m too tired, Greg stands at the stove until I get my butt moving. He’s so proud when he sees his house-mates and aides dive into his baked goods.
Greg’s friends’ lives changed. His friend Elizabeth became a sign language specialist. His friend Caralie went to nursing school. Trevor has bowled with us every week-end for twelve years now, and he would not be with anyone else. He supported Greg over the years by treating him normally, coming to dinner with us and interacting with Greg at our home. We cheer Trevor on when he bowls over 200, a feat he frequently achieves. Greg prospers thanks to these and other relationships that he has built over the years.
Greg’s teachers’ lives changed. Imagine their surprise over the years when they taught Greg how to read, do math on the calculator, interact with other children, and achieve the completion of a small task that they never thought he could do. There are more teachers than I can count who called me or sent me a journal entry in which they relayed their delight in a new task experienced and mastered. Over the years, Greg showed everyone his unusual art ability. Moreover, he showed his sense of humor and ability to interact with others in a nonverbal way.
Mrs. Bradley, Greg’s 7th grade teacher, gave him the gift of respect and time. She engaged Greg regularly in special reading class, never giving up on him. This is Part I in a series of blogs in which I will show teachers, friends and family members talking about raising Greg. Her videotape shows it all.
“Not til the Fat Lady Sings”…we hung onto inclusion until Greg no longer could participate in a normal educational setting. She sang when Greg was in 9th grade, but we had one final teacher that year who believed in our belief. Under the tutelage of Cindy Essis Royer, Greg felt the respect of everyone in his art class as he joyfully completed project after project with the help of his aides. Yes, his behaviors had become more bizarre by then. His ability to complete tasks independently had all but disappeared. Nevertheless, by 9th grade, the influence of an inclusive education was already cemented in Greg’s soul. He’d been educated with his peers, both special and otherwise, and he is who he is today thanks to his education, his invaluable friendships and dedicated teachers.