Last fall I witnessed a beautiful thing.
My son Mylo is 9 with Type 1 Diabetes, fully included in 2nd Grade. He was included last school year too, but spent most of the year home sick because of an immune deficiency (SAD) -- so he didn't get a lot of time in his 1st grade classroom. Now that he's been getting IVIG, he started school in the fall last year. He is the first student with DS ever included at his school.
It was a bit of an adjustment after being home sick for nearly a year -- and those first few mornings back he didn’t want to go. One morning was a particularly rough, and I was laying awake in the night full of anxiety and doubt and worry about all of it.
Finally, I resolved that I needed to prime Mylo in the morning before school to get him pumped up. So one particular day last fall I did just that. From the moment he woke up, I praised him for being a big boy and growing up and getting smarter, and doing so well getting up and going to school every day. He loved me talking to him in this way, so I fed him a super positive narrative about how important it is to practice writing, reading, math, and making new friends. I told him he was going to have a wonderful day, and he got out of the car excited.
Usually we walk into the classroom to get a head start on breakfast while the other kids assemble into lines out in the yard. But that particular morning, my son wanted to join them. So we walked towards the assembled student body. We had never joined his class in the yard before, so I didn't know where they were. Suddenly, two little boys ran out to meet us, saying "Mylo!" They each took hold of Mylo's hands and walked him back towards the group. Another little girl ran out to support their efforts.
I watched in amazement as his classmates circled around him and engaged him and held his hands. My son can be a bit flighty when it comes to crowds, but these kids wanted to help Mylo have the experience of standing with the group and walking into the class with them. I waved goodbye and walked off to hide and watch from a distance, prepared to sprint after him if he bolted. Through tears of joy, I witnessed with silent wonder as these two little boys held Mylo's hands and helped him walk across the yard to his classroom.
Even now as the school year is coming to a close and I have seen countless interactions affirming Mylo’s popularity with the kids in his class, I remain astounded. In Mylo’s class, it’s been a win-win for all the kids. Mylo benefits from the typical behavior they model, and they benefit from learning how to be a good friend to someone who is different — to care for this individual as a member of their group. And yet, not everyone has had a positive inclusion experience, so it cannot be denied that inclusion is still a trial and error process. Every circumstance is comprised of unique factors; and unfortunately I suspect many unsupportive teachers inadvertently hinder the benefits of inclusion simply through their own lack of faith, ignorance, or an unwillingness to even try it. Because kids take the bulk of their cues from adults, how the adults approach a situation often defines the children’s experience of it as well.
Nevertheless, I believe inclusion is a pathway to a better world. If we deny ourselves the opportunities to know each other in all our abilities, races, ages, and forms, then we deny the complete knowing of ourselves in all our diversity as a species.
Two things that I think have really helped foster Mylo's relationships with his classmates have been weekly "recreation therapy," where a therapist comes to help teach Mylo and the other kids how to play with each other. I mention this because when I brought up Recreation Therapy in Mylo’s IEP, it came as a surprise that I would even know to ask for this service. Apparently this is not a service that is advertised though it would likely benefit a number of kids. Mylo also has a one-on-one aide who actively engages the other kids to help her provide support and attention to Mylo. She does this by modeling ways in which they can help Mylo and interact with him -- for instance, at lunch time she asks the kids, "who wants to sit with Mylo today?" and culls together a little group of lunchtime friends to keep him company at the little picnic table (the tables under the bandstand 20 feet away are too noisy for Mylo at this time). Much to everyone's delight, there always seems to be a group of kids who jump at the opportunity. Also, when his blood sugar is high and he needs to go outside to run it off, there's always a few who are eager to go out and run around the yard with Mylo. Boys and girls alike enjoy holding his hands to help him stay on track when they are traveling together from one part of the school to another, and sometimes even argue with each other about who gets to sit next to him and help him.
Mylo is fortunate to have gone to the same public school since pre-school, making him familiar with a lot of the other kids and teachers there. Many of the teachers at his school are passionate about special education, and have taught there for over 20 years.
The little things make a difference :)