Yesterday, Paige went to a birthday party for her friend Macky. Macky turned 8 years old this weekend. He is nearly two years younger than Paige, but because of the way their birthdays fall (school cut-off is December here), and the fact that Paige didn't start school until she was 5 (normally, kids start at 4), they are in the same grade -- Grade 3.
Macky is autistic, and shares most of his day with Paige - They go to the regular grade 3 classroom together, and then are in the Living and Learning Classroom in the afternoon, where they work on life skills.
At Macky's birthday party yesterday, there were 10 children. Macky and one other little boy, Damien, are autistic. Damien is an amazing child to watch. In one aspect, he is very developmentally delayed, and has some very difficult problems to overcome. He doesn't have a wonderful family support system, and he is very far behind socially. When you say to him, "Hi, Damien! How are you today?" He will most likely answer by simply repeating back to you what he has heard. He is not greatly conversational.
However, he is six years old and can read incredibly well. He could read an encyclopedia from front to back. He couldn't put any of it into his own words, but if you were to take a passage and change the words around, he could surely find that.
The mind of a person with autism is immensely fascinating--to try and deciper the thought processes of these kids, and how to "re-fire" their brains to connect in all the right ways must be a very daunting task. I tip my hat to the researchers who are trying to find the answers for people with autism.
Also at the party were 8 "typical" kids from their Grade 3 class. All kids that Macky and Paige have been in school with for the last 5 years.
I never stop being amazed at how much a part of the class Macky and Paige are. The kids all play together, and all have great fun together, and no one seems to even notice the differences. All of them are immensely patient with Paige and Macky, and readily accept their quirkiness as just a part of who they are.
Its a great life lesson that the children who go to school with Macky and Paige have been given -- one that will indeed change the world for them and for their children. They have learned lessons that many of them cannot even fully understand yet; lessons of compassion and acceptance and love.
I have often wondered if this attitude of embracing Paige and Macky would change as the children got older, as the differences became more apparent, and as the kids no longer looked like cute "babies" for the rest of the school to oooooh and ahhhh over.
But...like all relationships that begin with love, it has only grown stronger -- this tie between all of these children. Most of them have never been in a classroom where there wasn't a child with special needs -- they do not see that as unique or different -- they see it simply as it is.
These are all Paige's peers -- the ones who are "typical" and the ones who are not. They are all people who will touch her life in one way or another. They are the people who will stand up and cheer for her when she accomplishes a new task, and the ones who will patiently wait while she tries the same task over again.
That, to me, is what true inclusion is. Its not about insisting that she sit in a classroom of kids her own age to give the appearance of inclusion. Its about letting her be the included one sometimes, and letting her be the one to include at other times. Its that balance that makes it successful.
I often think abou this when I read about families having problems with integration or schools that are not cooperating to actively educate all children.
What better "resource" than to have a child with Autism or Down syndrome, or any other physical or developmental delay in the classroom?
In a world where it is critical that we teach very important life lessons very early on, any school system that would not embrace this opportunity should not be educating anyone.