By Guest Blogger Torrie Dunlap, CEO, Kids Included Together
Timothy was a 12-year-old with autism attending his school’s after-care program. Every day at 3:15 p.m., he would make his way to the room, write his name on the sign-in sheet, select a box of crayons and a coloring book from the art area and sit at a table by himself, coloring pictures in silence until his mom came to get him at 5:30 p.m. He rarely made eye contact with anyone and since he appeared to be content, the staff left him alone. The program staff members were proud of their inclusive program and believed that they were honoring Timothy by allowing him to participate in this way. Later, as a team, the staff attended training on inclusive practice delivered by the non-profit where I am the CEO, called Kids Included Together. It was during this training that they learned about meaningful participation and about the benefits that inclusion holds for all children.
Inspired, the after-care program staff made some changes. They realized they had made some assumptions about Timothy based on his autism diagnosis. They learned that the biggest opportunity they had was to help all children enhance their social skills and learn how to engage with each other. They invited Timothy to participate in activities he was interested in and provided him with the necessary supports. Through this, they learned that he wanted to play games with other kids, but often didn’t know the rules and that the other kids didn’t know how to communicate with him to ask him to join in.
One day, Timothy’s mom arrived at the program to pick him up and went to his table, like she had every day for months. This time, Timothy wasn’t there. She felt panicked as she raced over to the sign-in sheet to see if he had arrived that day. As she turned around to ask the program director where her son was, she looked out a sliding glass door to the playground. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Her son was outside playing four-square with three other boys. She immediately began to cry. The program director asked her what had happened. She said, “In 12 years I have never seen my son play ball with other children.”