Turning Students into Advocates

Dan Coulter Headshot.jpg
by Dan Coulter

Do you get angry? I get angry. Oh, I’m pretty calm about most things. But when I hear about kids taking advantage of a child on the autism spectrum, my first thoughts involve swift and terrible punishment. Then I peel myself off the ceiling and think in more practical terms. I felt a surge of anger today when I heard about a mother I know who picked her autistic son up after school. He’s in special classes, but eats with everyone else in the school cafeteria. As he got into the car, her son remarked that he was really hungry.

Why? Didn’t he get to eat lunch?

No, he said.

It turns out the friend who usually ate with him had a schedule change, so he had to eat by himself. After he sat down, he realized he’d forgotten to get a drink. Leaving his tray on the table, he went to buy one. When he returned, someone had taken the tray. So, he went without lunch. Given the circumstances, it’s a pretty safe bet his food didn’t disappear out of good intentions.

As a dad of a son on the spectrum, it’s easy to get angry and to want whoever took the tray to be punished. Of course, you’d have to find him or them. And have evidence they did it. And, you’d have to be careful that you didn’t make the autistic student a bigger target in the future.

While I think it’s appropriate to pursue individual tormentors after the fact, our broader goal should be to prevent such incidents. For example, suppose just one student had seen others taking the autistic student’s tray and said, "Hey, don’t do that."

Looking back to when I was in high school, I was a member of a service club. We did things such as delivering food baskets to needy families at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What a great service project it would be for any number of existing student organizations to educate their members about autism and Asperger Syndrome (and other special needs) and enlist them as advocates. Most colleges look for community service in their applications. Being a special needs advocate is a service that students can provide as they go about their normal school activities.

Of course, having peers help peers is not a new idea. Quite a few organizations encourage students to support each other. One of the better known is called, "Best Buddies." Their website describes pairing children who have intellectual disabilities in one-to-one friendships with high school students.

If you can tap into a specialized organization such as this, more power to you. But enlisting the members of your school’s existing student organizations and clubs could also have a tremendous impact.

Perhaps a psychologist, school counselor, or member of a local autism support group can make a brief presentation to each club. It will help if you can arrange for club members to be introduced to students who have autism or Asperger Syndrome (and who wish to participate) and learn about their strengths as well as their challenges. Then the club members’ initial role might be as simple as to say, "Hi," when they pass these students in the hall, visit with them occasionally, and find ways to include them in activities. And, yes, to prevent bullying. These interactions could open the door to additional contacts and friendships.

Some schools make understanding and accepting differences an integral part of their programs. I’d love it if more schools took this approach. But I realize we sometimes need to start with smaller steps. Whatever you can do to help your school encourage students to be more understanding and compassionate is worth doing.

I know from personal experience about classmates who, after seeing presentations about Asperger Syndrome, apologized to students on the spectrum for how they’d treated them. A little education can also lead classmates to make a special effort to include and look out for a student they now see as a person, not just, "that weird kid."

The more students we can educate about special needs such as autism, the more we decrease the chances that one student will consider tormenting another. Or, if he does, the more we increase the chances that a third student will be ready to step up and say, "Stop."

Let’s give as many students as possible the understanding to turn potentially demeaning and damaging incidents into actions that protect our kids and make us all proud.

That will be a lot more satisfying than getting angry.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of the INTRICATE MINDS series of DVDs that help elementary through high school classmates understand and accept students with Asperger Syndrome and autism. You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2008 Dan Coulter (Revised 2014) All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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