Teenagers and Exposure to Their Special Needs Peers

RSS Author RSS     Views:N/A
Bookmark and Share          Republish
Recently, I’ve begun working for an autism treatment provider, but I’m no stranger to autism. As an adolescent in Chicago, I attended a high school that offered special education classes and I volunteered on weekends for a local organization dedicated to those with special needs. This exposure to special needs teens seemed effortless, the normal backdrop of community life where I lived. Volunteering wasn’t laudable or exceptional—it was just what many we did—go to concerts with our friends late on Saturday nights, and sing Good Morning songs, our arms slung around the shoulders of autistic and mentally-retarded peers the next morning at Keshet (Hebrew for rainbow).

At school, the combination of puberty and severe autism made for some aggressive and strange behaviors for some of the students—a big, strong, ponytail-pulling boy comes to mind. Still, the general attitude among the mainstream student body was one of, Say hi, slap him five, and yeah, try not to turn your back if your hair’s in a ponytail, rather than avoidance or any form of mockery. It became a point of pride to reach the seemingly unreachable, to achieve eye contact or recognition from one of these students.

I can’t comment conclusively on how regular, positive social interactions with neuro-typical friends impacted my special needs peers, but I know how they affected my friends and me. In the short term, it forced us to develop social sophistication and empathy beyond our years and beyond our comfort zone—the ability to find common ground when sameness isn’t readily apparent. In college and as young adults, we used this foundation to relate to acquaintances and roommates who spanned ages, nationalities, mental and physical capacities. Years later, as some us become parents, we are better equipped to recognize, approach, and even appreciate the differences each of our children brings to our lives and the world.

But often the less feel-good interactions are the most impactful. Nearing my high school graduation, I spent a summer as a counselor at a special needs day camp for adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders. The camper-counselor ratio was one-to-one. Many didn’t speak or even use the bathroom independently, yet were a match for us physically. We were supervised by behavioral therapists and underwent some basic training but much of our role was instinctive: reward positive behavior, focus on individual goals, and pay attention – always.

Lounging together at the pool one afternoon, I glanced at Ben, my own water-phobic, thirteen-year-old, autistic charge to find him covered in blood. It was that quick—one second he was humming happily next to me, the next his swimsuit-clad body and wavy hair were streaked red. And he continued humming, utterly calm and emotionally unchanged, smearing what seemed like massive amounts of blood along his torso with no sign of distress. After a panicked search for the source of injury, I discovered that the simple nosebleed that had started it all had already stopped. Ben, undisturbed by the sensation of bleeding, had done all of the distracting “painting” while the sun warmed our faces.

That experience gave me a glimpse, at seventeen years old, of the day-to-day challenges faced by many caregivers and parents of children with autism. Now a mother of three little boys, I’ve had my share of ER visits and scares: broken limbs, febrile seizures, a near-drowning, even open-heart surgery during the infancy of my youngest. I’ve been pushed way out of my comfort zone, have experienced fear on a level previously unimaginable, but the basics I learned as a kid have helped—it usually looks worse than it is. Soldier through. Optimism can change outcome.

Working in the field today, I’m again reminded of these adolescent experiences. I wonder if the “group think” acceptance of disabilities in my high school was unusual, even remarkable, and how we can encourage similar experiences for future generations. Certainly, I’m better off for them.

Report this article

Bookmark and Share

Ask a Question about this Article