Sunday, May 7, 2017

Autism Awareness and Bullies on the Playground

May 7, 2017

On the eve of Autism Awareness Month (April 2017), a mother of a six-year old boy with severe autism confronted bullies on the playground. They were not the usual suspects, i.e. adolescent children looking for a vulnerable kid to push around to make themselves feel better. They were instead the parents of a girl who the autistic boy had inadvertently pushed down a slide. The girl apparently was not hurt and did not seem upset. The girl’s parents, however, yelled at the autistic boy and his mother, shouting, “What is the matter with your son? What are you doing here?” The extreme irony in this situation is that the playground was designated as an “inclusive” playground that was built to accommodate children with special needs.

The autistic boy’s mother, explained that her son has severe non-verbal autism and had not done anything intentionally to hurt their child. She apologized more than five times to the parents for his having pushed their little girl down the slide. Meanwhile, her son ran off laughing and playing apparently oblivious to the drama taking place between the parents.

Kate Swenson, the author of the blog “Finding Cooper’s Voice”, posted her emotional account of her encounter with bullies on the playground on her Facebook page. The incident is also the subject of a news article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune (4/7/17). In the video, Kate considered never leaving the house again with Cooper and contemplated her inability to fix the world or even change it very much when it comes to how children like Cooper are treated. 

At one point Kate asks herself, how old will Cooper be when she is fifty or seventy or eighty and will anything have changed? I did those calculations when Danny, my older son with profound DD, was Cooper’s age and now I am up there in that age range. Some things have changed, but many have not. 

When Danny was a young child, he was a screamer and it was next to impossible to take him anywhere for very long that was in a public place. When we did, we always had a well-planned escape route. It wasn’t that we were rebuked by other people for bringing our son into public places; it was that there was very little enjoyment in doing so, either for us or for Danny. At the age of 40, Danny still does much better in more controlled settings where the care that he always needs is immediately available and he doesn’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers for his enjoyment of life.

I get annoyed when advocates of full inclusion expect all of our family members with disabilities to put themselves out there in public view to teach ordinary people about the accomplishments of people with disabilities. Encountering Danny may teach them something about tolerance and the human condition and what it means to carry on, as Danny has for forty years, having to rely fully on others for his most basic needs.

As an example of Danny’s fortitude, he was in the ER last night with uncontrolled seizures, again. In between small 10-second seizures, he managed to make funny clucking sounds and smile broadly when I played a Youtube video of a Cockatiel who had learned to whistle the theme song from the Addams Family. How many of you out there would be up to that after two hours of intermittent seizures??

A random person at a shopping mall who encounters Danny is likely to be more overwhelmed by how different he is than your ordinary forty-year-old than to recognize his accomplishments. Or, if he is screaming, it is also possible, that he or she might be as angry as those parents on the playground who demanded to know why Cooper was allowed at the special needs inclusive playground. Or, if we were lucky, we might encounter someone who has an aunt with cerebral palsy, or a grandmother with dementia who is taken care of by another family member, or the mother of a child with Down syndrome who will likely never be a TV star. At that moment, Danny only has to be himself to let others in the same boat know that they are not alone.

I suspect that Kate and her son will leave the house and go back to that playground, Cooper’s favorite place to play. She should always remember that ugly incident with the image of the those parents juxtaposed with the sign explaining the reason for building an inclusive playground. And I hope that the next time she is out there, she meets a parent with a boy who has spent his morning lining up chairs against the living room wall as Cooper does in Kate’s video.


Finding Cooper's Voice by Kate Swenson

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