This blog in no way reflects the opinion of Milton Hershey School where I taught for 24 years. The words and thoughts are solely my own.
I constantly evaluate the way Jay and I have taught others to work with our son and to understand him, and I see that it is a life long commitment. What inspired me to write this final blog on the lessons I taught my students this year about how to treat special people happened just last evening. During a crab night celebration at my sister's house, Greg was pointing to his ribs and mac and cheese, unable to move forward to eat without making that decision between choosing one or the other. My nephew who was seated next to him clearly didn't know that Greg was stuck, needing his usual prompt when OCD and the need to make a decision between "right and wrong" or, rib versus mac & cheese hit randomly, as it often does. I explained to my nephew that all he needed to do was to be verbally decisive and show Greg one or the other. We play the game of "yes/no" daily. Greg points to one video, one piece of garlic bread or one French fry and Jay or I say, "Yes", then Greg points to the other and Jay or I say, "No." In this way, after a verbal prompt, Greg is able to move forward. He just needs someone to make the choice for him so he is not responsible in case it is the wrong choice.
As I think about my students and the lessons the other 8th grade reading teachers and I tried to teach about how to act around special people, I realize that everyone is capable of both teaching and learning, increasing one's own empathy and knowledge as well as evoking those traits in others. It just takes a clear objective, patience and constant advocating for people who are special. In other words, even if you don't have a special needs family member, you can still advocate. Just look at the commitment of the adults who contribute their time to our mission every Saturday at Red Crown Bowling, those who do not have a child or family member of their own who is special.
I sifted through all of the emails that the students sent me after I shared data about their growth with them. The question I posed at the end of our unit: How has this unit, all components, changed your thinking and your willingness to learn about people with special needs?
To refresh, the unit involved several topics. First, we read excerpts from Flowers for Algernon, a masterfully creative book about a special needs man who opts to have brain surgery to make himself smarter. The surgery is successful, and Charlie's intelligence greatly increases. I don't want to give away the ending, but I can say that the people who dealt with Charlie throughout this journey empathized with him, but only after lots of introspection and painful lessons about the acceptance of all people. Next, we flooded our students with information about autism and read a chapter or two of my book with them. Finally, we had them make pledges not to say the "r" word after they read of a young lady's claim that she has been deeply hurt by the derogatory use of this word.
Here is my favorite email that I received back from the many I read:
Dear Mrs. Squaresky,
During this unit, my thinking about people with special needs changed. I used to think that they weren't capable of doing much and needed a lot of help. In some situations, I now know, that is the case. When we did that survey about people with special needs everything I answered was true, but now I have bigger passion on helping those kinds of people. This weekend my student home took me to the movie theater to watch "Batman vs. Superman". I had to go to the concession stand to get something, and I happened to notice a man in the back of the theater with special needs. He was holding these actions figure of Batman. I didn't say anything to him, but he said something to me.. The man said "hi". Now that I look back to that, I would not have had the courage to say anything to him in the first place if it weren't for this unit. I said "hi" back to him just like I would have said it to one of my friends. After the movie we were leaving to go back to the student home and I saw him walking home. As soon as I saw him I quickly prayed to God, "Lord, please bless this man, that you lead him and guide him toward whatever it is that you put him on this earth for." From this unit I learned that people with special needs are human beings like me too.
Kind regards, A student, 2016
(I am not at liberty to name this student. So sorry! Enough said. Her message was shared by others, just not so eloquently and heartfelt. It's all about taking those initial baby steps toward change. I am proud of this student for doing just that!)
Greg studies the ocean, watching it take over his castle and fill his moat, but he can't make some of the essential decisions of life. Mac & cheese or rib? He gets stuck sometimes....one of those unique side effects of autism.