How to Make a World of Differences

by Krista Nadeau 

“The other kids are good to him,” the physical education teacher told me one afternoon, as I was waiting in the lobby to pick my son up from school. 

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” 

She was trying to tell me something nice, but honestly, it struck me wrong. 

“Why shouldn’t they be?” 

She stammered for an explanation. 

“I know what you are saying,” I said. “But why shouldn’t kids be good to my son? He’s a great kid.” 

My son was in the 7th grade at the time. At 4 1/2 years old he was diagnosed with a developmental delay that later became an autism diagnosis. He sees the world in a very different way than a “typical” person. Autism, for him, results in slower processing ability so he is academically behind. But, he can run like the wind, he finds humor in things, can memorize whole parts of videos or movies, is very social, and is immune from the nasty parts and people of life. 

Now a sophomore, Cole still has challenges but autism doesn’t have the same grip on our family that it did in the early years. He is in a functional life skills program in special ed at school. We are grateful for his teachers, their effort, and his progress—but expectation and opportunity are still lacking on many levels. 

“Studies report that children with autism spectrum disorders are bullied far more often than their typically developing peers — nearly five times as often — but parents of autistic kids think the rate is even higher than that,” according to Time Magazine. 

For people like Cole, life is a lot better today than it was years ago. Society is more accepting of people with disabilities, largely in part because of the mistreatment of people in the past and others finding out about it, advocating for them, and for change. Each generation serves as a moving window in time hopefully teaching others things they didn’t know previously, allowing the generations that follow to be better. 

To teach is defined as to show or to explain to someone how to do something. Not only are we taught things by our families but society teaches us, as well. Society has taught us collectively what is typical, usual, or what is expected of us as people. How and what people are taught can lead to prejudice, which is described as a preconceived opinion, especially of a hostile nature. Pushed to the next level prejudice can lead to discrimination which is borne out of ignorance, lack of information, or lack of understanding. 

Let’s backtrack to the early 1900’s—an asylum, called a “school” for the “feeble-minded” was located in Pownal, Maine (currently the home of Pineland Farms), and there were many like it throughout the country. According to Maine History online, “America viewed persons with developmental problems as potential criminals and dangerous to society. These ideas affected how communities and institutions dealt with persons with developmental disabilities.” They actually legally sterilized patients to stop the spread of “retardation.” 

Society taught us this. “Institutions were long thought to be the most humane and most modern way for society to care for people who had been labeled “feeble-minded,” “idiot,” “moron,” “defective,” “deficient” and “retard.” Being the parent of a child with autism, to say this is infuriating is an understatement 

Injured WWI soldiers who returned home from the war wanted services that would help them reenter the workforce. Little did we know that The Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918, which provided necessary training and financial help to disabled veterans, would pave the road for a broader brush of who and what the disabilities community was. In 1943, the act was amended and extended these services to people with intellectual disabilities as well as mental illness. 

The 1960’s ushered in all things civil rights and in the 1970’s there was more attention around disability issues. Independent Living Centers was established in 1972 and provided support, training, and resources to people with disabilities to live within the community—what is now called mainstreaming. 

Discrimination was prohibited against those with disabilities by any federal program due to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. More laws were implemented that allowed and provided funds for free and appropriate education to children with special needs. The Education for All Act emphasized educating in the “least restrictive environment” allowing special needs children to integrate within the regular education classrooms. 

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 many of the asylums closed their doors. The ADA was crucial for the disability movement. “Modeled after the Civil Rights Act, it prohibited discrimination based on disability by any local, state or federal program.” In a perfect world, everyone would see people with autism and other disabilities as human beings who want to be treated well, who want to be accepted, who have rights. 

It is not a perfect world. People with disabilities are still looked down upon by some, looked at like they are not smart enough—that they are defective. For school-aged kids, sometimes the hardest type of bullying comes in the form of exclusion. There are many legal cases in this state and throughout the nation of kids with disabilities being treated poorly and unfairly at school or in settings where they should be safe. My son had limited verbal skills until he was five years old. Because of his inability to tell me if someone was mean to him, making the choice to become a stay-at-home mother was an easy decision. 

Autism presents differently in each person diagnosed, but there are some hallmark symptoms including excessive interest in one area or on a specific topic and social awkwardness. These two characteristics have proven beneficial in the world we live in. Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Mozart are just a few examples of people who were on the spectrum who changed the course of our world. Fast forward to present day, big tech companies have recognized the abilities of those with autism and actually seek them for employment because of their abilities. 

The adage, in a world where you can be anything, be kind should be “taught” more. Or, perhaps we could live by these words spoken by Einstein, “Hail to the man who went through life always helping others, knowing no fear, and to whom aggressiveness and resentment are alien.”

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