Is it a Disability or a Difference? by A.P.

I could hear all the way across Target. The loud screeching sound that everyone around me was cringing to. Since I had heard it a dozen times before, it didn’t bother me. As I walked toward the toy section, the piercing scream got louder. A scream so loud the Target security guards came to inspect the scene. I turned a corner and there just as I suspected, my cousin James, was screaming. Target did not sell Duck from “Thomas the Tank Engine,” in train form! The guard turned toward me with a stunned look on his face and said quietly, “is there any way you could make him stop screaming? He is a disturbance to the customers”. A moment I am not proud of, I snapped, “don’t you think if I could make him stop screaming I would?” I calmly grabbed James’ hand and started walking out as fast as I could. Before we could leave Target, James insisted on riding the elevator twice and then stopping to get an Icee, red of course, because those activities were part of James’ routine.

Anyone who is familiar with autism would know right off the bat that James shows signs of being on the spectrum. According to autismspeaks.org, autism is a developmental disorder that leads to a lack in communication and social skills. When talking about autism, many refer to it as a spectrum because there are varying degrees. Some may be very functional and communicative, where others are nonverbal and have very repetitive behavior. The diagnosis of autism occurs between the first two years of a child’s life. Many will look for signs such as a baby not making eye contact, not responding to their name, not having any emotion if they hurt themselves and of course having a very large head. Hanen Centre conducted a study that created a big breakthrough in the autism community. The biggest sign of autism in infants is not pointing at objects they want you to see. A baby with autism doesn’t point because they assume that everything they can see, you see as well.

James was diagnosed at 18 months, a very late diagnosis. On the spectrum scale he is more towards the severe end. He is communicative but can not hold a conversation and has some repetitive behaviors. Raven McCracken, James’ mother, my aunt, explains how she accepted the fact that she has a son with a disability that changed her life for the better. “Looking back at it now, I should have recognized sooner that James was a very special baby. One moment in particular was when he was about seven months and was still unable to sit up by himself. I joke that it was because his head was so big he couldn’t lift all that weight!” When asked how James’ schedule is like at school she got the biggest smile on her face. “James is at a school that accommodates for his needs and I am endlessly grateful. As you know James’ passion is music, any kind. He takes three music classes a day two guitar lessons and choir, he then goes to advanced math and then lunch where he sits with his friends.”  Raven went on about how James being main-streamed into the community has taught his fellow students to accept him for all that he is. With tears in her eyes she said “James is an inspiration to his peers and having a son with special needs who is included in things like birthday parties is all a mother could ask for.”

Instead of thinking of a person as disabled, I choose to think of them as simply different. The type of difference that teaches others to be more tolerant and open. The problem is many don’t understand how to have this sort of tolerance because students with a difference are often segregated from students who are able to learn in the standard classroom. At Fairview High School, there are two classes that offer a connection between students, Adaptive P.E. and Adaptive Art. Mae Olsen, a student who signed up for Adaptive Art explains how it has changed the way she sees students with a difference. “I signed up not knowing what to expect and going to art class soon became the highlight of my days.” Many may think these students are “unlucky” for what life has given them, but I think they have just as much to offer, if not more. It was Valentine’s Day and we were writing down things we love. Mikey a student with autism started writing “I love you,” and he finished it with “Evie.” Carol, the para, told me Evie was a former student who had a real connection with Mikey. This just showed me how much of an impact I too could make. One day, one of these amazing students would think of me as their “Evie.”

At age fourteen I got my first phone. I knew it would help me keep in contact with my friends, but I never expected it to grow my relationship with James. For four years I have watched James’ conversation over text mature and keep him socially active with my family and his friends. I consider myself very lucky to have figured out at a young age that people who are different have just as much to offer the world as those who aren’t. Growing up, I never had to be taught tolerance because James provided me with the experience I needed. Integrating students with autism into our school communities helps teach others the importance of compassion and acceptance. When asking my immediate family how James has affected their lives in a positive way, the words they shared were simplicity, sincerity, perspective, belief and adaptability. Everyone has something to contribute, some just don’t know how to show it.

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