Friday, 8 July 2011

Integration, Acceptance other stuff that moves me

Working with children in various learning environments has allowed me to see the way a variety of establishments foster (and I use that word loosely) integration. From nursery school to kindergarten, from camp to centers, it seems everyone is all for inclusion, at least in theory (and a lot of times only if you are willing to make him be quiet, sit still, look at the teacher, and keep his hands to himself).

From what I have seen, being "for inclusion" means actively taking steps to provide the right learning environment, and fostering development on an ongoing basis for each child regardless of diagnosis or learning style. Inclusion means ensuring that a child is not singled out, that acceptance is required and that professionals are trained in each student's unique profile. In the pursuit of integration, we must not forget to allow for our kids, or adults, to be themselves (diagnosis and all!).

It all reminds me a lot of a debate in school, Medical vs. Social model of disability; in short, the medical model seeks to "fix/cure the person that is autistic" while the social model seeks to "fix/cure the society that is intolerant". Prescribing to the social model in practice, it is important also to remember that in preserving the character of each of our autistic students, we are also teaching and instilling coping mechanism to adjust to the natural world (which will likely continue to be overwhelming and uncontrolled for all of time, despite our best efforts). Susceptible to stimulus over load, our learners require us to manipulate our environment to suit their needs, so why can't the same be expected of society?  

I have been profoundly impacted by children with autism (among other diagnoses), who defy the odds on a daily basis, struggling to cope with a confusing and constantly changing world that expects students with autism to act and look normal. I try to explain to my clients to "do away" with whatever preconceived notions they have about autistic children; autistic children can thrive, but it requires us to alter the way we structure certain daily events, activities and developments (its the least we can do to set up success). We owe it to our kids to take these steps to ensure that their futures are bright. In order to provide an ideal environment for a child with autism, all of the variables (from lighting to carpets) ought to be considered.

As a summer goal, our campers work towards developing social skills in a way that is individualized and systematic. Understanding the ways that autistic children socialized, allows our therapists to provide meaningful learning throughout the day, in a way that is controlled, choice based and child-centered. Spending a good chunk of the day on 1:1 or 1:2 basis, provides our campers with repeated opportunities to engage with other people. Art is an especially social time, while our campers sit at one table and all focus on the same activity at the same time; conversation is modeled, but not required. This activity is incredibly motivating for our students. The social needs of children with autism (among other dds) is not the same as for neurotypical people; it seems at least to me, that social interaction is not inherently reinforcing for many children on the spectrum, the way it is for many other children. Having extensive experience with high functioning Aspergers into adulthood, I have seen first hand what can result from a society's inability to adjust its expectations based on evidence of diagnosis and/or other variables that impact functioning. It's sad to me that people with a diagnosis are not entitled to their own set of expectations about life. Equality is a double-edge sword when it means holding everyone to the same exclusive standards (without accounting for variables that are a fact of life); this is the standard upon which success is measured.

When success is measured based on relative gains, that's when society will have it right and in the meantime I will keep speaking for those who would rather not :)

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