Studies show that 1 in 68 children are currently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism does not discriminate; it affects children of all races, ethnicities, gender and socio-economic groups. With the right support, all individuals with ASD can thrive. But understanding its complexities and raising awareness is critical.
Sally Meadows is a published author who travels to schools talking about her book The Two Trees (see summary below) and speaking to children about autism and the importance of being a good friend. I conducted a Q & A with her, and I hope her thought provoking answers illuminate you.
I am a former teacher and I use a teaching technique that encourages students to draw on their own experience and knowledge to ultimately bring out the important messages in my book. As a start, I ask the children (ages 5-9) to brainstorm practical ways as to how they could show friendship and kindness to Syd, the boy with autism in the story, if he went to their school. Then I ask them to share what they know about bullying. (There is a scene in the book where Syd is pushed up against a wall and the other kids throw balls at him.) I emphasize that when we say or do something hurtful to someone, it can stay with him or her throughout his or her life.
I also share what autism is, in general, age-appropriate terms; a person with autism has a brain that works differently from someone who doesn’t have autism—not worse, not better, just different. I then open the floor to any questions the students have about autism. The important thing is to get dialogue going with the hope that the children will be more compassionate and understanding about the challenges their classmates on the autism spectrum—indeed, any child who may appear or act “different”—face. My prayer is that the next time a student is thinking about being hurtful to someone they will stop and remember the conversation we had.
The messages I focus on in my presentation are reinforced in the hands-on activities. I have heard from teachers that they have used my book in their classroom as a follow up to my large group presentation. The book has questions at the back of the book that help guide the conversation and bring greater comprehension. I also use the hands-on portion of the presentation to help increase science literacy through the rocks, minerals, dinosaurs, etc. I bring along. The connection is that Syd, the boy with autism, loves science and is specifically interested in these topics.
What advice would you give children about how to be more inclusive?
It is easy when someone appears to be “different” to ignore or make fun of him or her. In the hands-on part of the presentation, the students are presented with hypothetical scenarios and asked to identify whether each is an example of being a good friend, or of bullying. This activity reinforces what they already know and incorporates new ideas into their way of thinking. For example, many students may not have thought that NOT including a classmate in play is actually a form of bullying. I encourage the students to be brave and speak up when they see another child being bullied. If they haven’t already brought it up in our discussion, the children are asked to consider inviting someone playing on his or her own to play with them. The child may not want to, but more often than not, they are looking for someone to go the extra mile and ask.
Inviting a child to a one-on-one play date is a good way to show inclusion. And it is as important, if not more, to accept their birthday party invitation, as it is to include that child in his or her own birthday party.
What are the biggest misconceptions about autism?
I recently asked this question on Facebook: What does autism mean to you? with the intention of conducting my own research. Interestingly enough—but ultimately, not surprisingly—the only people who answered the question either had family members with, or close connections to someone with, autism. And what beautiful answers they had! I’d love to share those answers sometime.
I think that many people picture a non-verbal child prone to meltdowns when they think of autism. Or, someone with savant characteristics, such as the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man. I think the most important thing people need to know is that autism is truly a spectrum; each person with autism has their own individual strengths and challenges. Some people with autism hold very prestigious jobs. Others have Down syndrome. Some are famous. Others work as janitors. As the saying goes, when you meet someone with autism, you’ve only met one person with autism.
There are a lot of theories out there as to what causes autism. The most satisfactory answer, in my opinion, that researchers have come up with so far, is that both hereditary and environmental factors come into play. Theories have ranged over the years from “the mother was emotionally distant” to vaccinations to one of the newest theories I’ve seen circulating on social media, that autism is caused by the bacteria in the mother’s digestive system (have you heard that one yet?) While the researchers do their research, let us as a society focus more on how we can help people on the autism spectrum achieve their potential. All they want is a level playing field, and if that means that they need extra support in one way or the other, then let’s do it!
What are some of the challenges children on the autism spectrum face?
Because of their unique challenges in interacting socially, those on the autism spectrum generally find it difficult to make and/or sustain friends. Every single parent I’ve talked to has expressed a heartfelt desire that his or her child find a friend (or two). It doesn’t matter if their child is six or thirty-six; we all want our children to have connection and community. It is helpful for others to make an effort to really get to know children on the autism spectrum; at the same time, children on the autism spectrum can respond positively to direct teaching on how to BE a good friend.
Children who are on the lower functioning end of the spectrum have very different challenges than those on the opposite end of the spectrum. In my experience, these children tend to have greater in-class support in part because of immediacy of need, plus they may have multiple disabilities that impair their cognitive functioning; in other words, they may struggle more with age-appropriate academics. The challenge they face as they get older is where they will fit in society and who will take on their caretaker role when their parents pass away.
Children who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum have their own challenges. Students on this end of the spectrum—who are capable or very capable academically—are a lower priority to already-overstressed teachers. The problem is that these children, who can be very bright, are often underachieving because their unique needs are not being met. These children will invariably be bullied, sometimes unbeknownst to the school, and this can and likely will negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. These students can strongly benefit from direct teaching on social matters and from cognitive behavioural therapy, but unfortunately, resources are not often available.
Other spectrum challenges include depression, difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal issues, being misunderstood, difficulty with fine and/or gross motor skills, perfectionism, rigid schedules, difficulty in organizing personal possessions, difficulty maintaining personal hygiene, ADHD, and lack of street smarts. Again, not all people on the spectrum have these difficulties. Each person is unique.
I am a former teacher of children on the autism spectrum and the parent to a twice-gifted, now adult child. Twice gifted means academically gifted plus a disability. My son’s giftedness masked his disability, so he was not diagnosed until high school.
My initial intention of writing The Two Trees was to highlight the red flags of autism in an accessible narrative form for parents of children on the high-functioning end of the spectrum who may have not yet been diagnosed. For example, Syd, the boy with autism in my story, has very intense interests. He also lines things up, and he finds it difficult to connect with other kids. My hopes were (and still are) that parents might start asking questions of their paediatricians; is it possible that my son (or daughter) is on the autism spectrum? Early diagnosis is key.
I have come across parents who would rather stick their heads in the sand than get early intervention for their children. It is a misconception on their part that their child is somehow defective and in turn they respond by ignoring or hiding their child’s challenges. Once again, early intervention is very, very critical.
As the story took shape, I decided to tell the story in the voice of the younger, neurotypical (non-autistic) sibling. Siblings of kids on the autism spectrum are, in my opinion, unsung heroes. They have to take on responsibility earlier than most and often have their needs overlooked while their sibling gets all the attention. You can see how this plays out in my story The Two Trees.
As my story continued to take shape, I realized that I could use it to educate children about classmates on the autism spectrum. Our society often doesn’t give kids enough credit about their ability to connect to and actually do something about social injustice. In my opinion, early education about compassion to others can last a lifetime and affect others positively and permanently.
About Sally Meadows
Sally Meadows is an award-winning author, singer/songwriter, and speaker who hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. In addition to children’s picture books, Sally writes inspirational short stories for adults, inspirational songs, and articles about writing and song writing. She also facilitates writing and song writing workshops for adults and children. The Two Trees was shortlisted for a Canadian 2016 The Word Awards (Children’s Fiction category) and was also considered for the prestigious American Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award (2015). Sally’s second children’s book is Beneath That Star (https://www.facebook.com/beneaththatstar).
A synopsis of the book The Two Trees:
Jaxon’s older brother Syd is smart, really smart. But all Jaxon wants is someone to play with. When Jaxon sees Syd having trouble connecting with other kids, he is torn between loyalty to his brother and the frustration of having a sibling who is “different.” It’s only when Syd gets the support he needs that the whole family can move forward in hope and healing.
The Two Trees gives a glimpse into the difficulties of having a child with high-functioning autism in the family. Told from the sibling perspective, it is both an exploration and celebration of brotherly love in challenging circumstances. A must-read for all parents and kids, autism families, educators, health professionals, and anyone who has witnessed or felt the sting of being left out, bullied, or misunderstood.
To contact Sally:
Twitter handle: @SallyMeadows