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“Mommy, How Can We Help That Boy?”

By: Hindy Hecht

Published in Building Blocks, December 2010

Nurturing Greater Sensitivity and Inclusion

A child known to have been diagnosed with Autism enters shul (synagogue), and the whispers begin. “What’s wrong with her?” “It’s Autism.... Why did they bring her here?” The whispers are hurting the feelings of the child, the mother and the sister. Other children in shul make noise, but it seems that when the child with Autism makes noise, it’s less tolerable. Some people try to be friendly. They come over to ask her, “What’s your name?” When she doesn’t answer, the stares and whispers continue....

Similar scenes take place on our neighborhoods’ streets, parks and stores every day. On the other hand, there are, thankfully, many gestures of acceptance and inclusion made toward people with disabilities, and in these instances, everyone benefits. Yet there are still too many people who do not know how to respond when they encounter someone with a disability. Out of ignorance, fear or stigma, they may resort to avoidance or outright rejection. This can be incredibly hurtful to the child with a disability and his family, who may feel isolated and in great need of acceptance and support.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCES

Mrs. T., who has three children with an autism spectrum disorder, has had her share of painful experiences as well as some wonderfully welcoming experiences from community members toward her children. “I once took my family to a kosher restaurant. It was informal, not a fancy place. My daughter was having some difficulty adjusting to the new environment, and we were trying to help her. There was only one other couple there, but the owner of the restaurant came over to us and asked us to leave because, ‘she’s bothering the other customers.’” Mrs. T. recounted many other times that she was hurt by community intolerance of her children. “When I take my children out to the store for routine errands, and one of them starts to cry, people will tell me, ‘you should take her home.’ Children in shul talk about community events or birthday parties right in front of my children, but do not invite them to participate, as if they are invisible. There have been times one of my children rocks or makes a grunting sound [because of the autism] when we are outside, and parents pull their children away.” Yet, as Mrs. T. reports, “I have learned to let things roll off my back. Not everyone is going to be accepting, but you can’t deny your children the right to be part of the community.” She has also had some wonderful experiences, which reflect on the chesed (kindness) and compassion of our community. She reports that, “I have friends who go out of their way to make my kids feel like any of the other kids. They invite them for bar mitzvahs and for Shabbos meals. They understand my kids will get into everything, and that’s OK. Thanks to them, I have someone to go over to at shul. They will be helpful, and offer, ‘Let me take care of them for a few minutes so you can go out for a walk and clear your head.’” Mrs. T. is grateful not only for their help, but also because they treat her children with respect and dignity. “They take the time to find what interests them, enjoying them for who they are. Even if that means they need to repeat themselves, or read the same book or sing the same song over and over again.” She has also had some very positive experiences through the caregivers who work with her children one-on-one in her home. “Some of the counselors have invited my kids into their homes for Shabbos. Before this, my kids never had the opportunity to go away for Shabbos. Knowing that my children were embraced by others gave me courage to venture out a little bit more. It also teaches the families and communities of the counselors what autism is all about.”

BECOMING COMFORTABLE

How can we foster more acceptance and empathy toward people with disabilities? How can we ensure that other parents like Mrs. T. are welcomed and embraced? How can we teach our children to be friendly when they encounter another child with a disability? The best way for parents to teach their children to be comfortable around people with disabilities is to set a personal example for them, by their words, deeds and their body language. Children are extremely adept at picking up on their parents’ true feelings, even if their words tell another story. First, parents must educate themselves about disabilities, gaining a level of familiarity and comfort so that they can credibly mentor their own children.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

-Read your children stories that include children with disabilities. There are many books that introduce characters with disabilities and are written in a warm and appropriate manner.
-Create teachable moments for your children wherever you can. For example, if you have an adaptive swing in your local playground, teach your children that it was made for children who have a hard time using the regular swing because their legs don’t work as well, and that they must always allow them to have that swing first.
-Treat people with disabilities that you encounter normally and respectfully. Establish and maintain eye contact, and smile in a welcoming manner in their direction. Don’t avoid them at the playground. Don’t be overly permissive toward them either. Be kind, be warm, be friendly, but don’t patronize.
-Be open and non-judgmental if you encounter challenging situations involving children with disabilities in your community. Ask if you can be helpful, and if your offer of help is declined, just move on by.
-Allow your children to articulate any fears or concerns and to ask questions, but teach them to do so privately. Be honest with your children, and provide them with age-appropriate information. Praise your children when they include a child with a disability and when they demonstrate patience and are sensitive to a child with a disability.

CREATE NATURAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTERACTION

To really be inclusive, it is important to create natural opportunities for your children and yourself to interact with people with disabilities. Children tend to focus on what is different about new people they meet. So if a child with a disability looks, talks or walks differently, a typically developing child may stare or question those differences. However, once they have spent time around the child with a disability, those differences become familiar and the child tends to focus on the commonalities between them. It is important to create opportunities for your children to have regular interactions with people with disabilities. Here are some ideas:

-Invite people with disabilities who live in your community for Shabbos and holiday meals. Many individuals who live in residential programs welcome the opportunity to enjoy a Shabbos or holiday meal with neighbors and friends and would be delighted to receive an invitation. You also can invite a family with a child with a disability for a Shabbos meal.
-Encourage your child to spend time with children or teens with disabilities. Many agencies provide Shabbatons, Shabbos programs, trips and summer programs that offer opportunities for typical children and teens to join their peers with disabilities in recreational settings, fostering opportunities for relationships to develop.
-Sit next to the mother and her children with disabilities in shul. Encourage them to sit with you at the park. Get to know them. Have patience for their differences and lend a supportive and understanding ear.
-Invite a child with disabilities in your shul or neighborhood to your home for a play date. Help your child find a common interest, such as a hobby, game or character. Ask the child’s mother what accommodations you can make to assist your children in having a successful experience. Start slow and keep the first encounter short. Be available to address issues as they arise. After the visit is over, talk to your child and discuss the experience, and plan for the next play date. Some of these suggestions may seem dramatic, but it is important to step outside your comfort zone and take a first step. Mrs. Z. is a parent of two children with disabilities. She talks about her difficulty in managing the long Shabbos days of summer, with so many unstructured hours that she has to attend to her children. “I look around my backyard every Shabbos afternoon and see my neighbor’s children playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. I think, just once, why can’t they include my children? It hurts, [yet] somewhere inside me, I don’t think I will ever stop hoping that one day, they will invite my children too.” Reaching out to a child with a disability can have a tremendous positive impact. Mr. F., father of an 8-year-old boy with Fragile X Syndrome, recalled a neighbor’s birthday party to which his son was invited. “He didn’t play all the games the same way that everyone else did, and he needed to take some breaks, but he really had a great time in his own way. Months later, he still surprises us with all the details of the party that he remembers. He is still asking us when he can go back again.” Mrs. T. agrees. “Parents of children with disabilities feel so isolated. We are too vulnerable and overwhelmed to reach out, but a friendly hello will make all the difference to us.” So the next time you see a child with a disability, don’t avert your gaze. Look into his eyes and smile. You will find that the light that reflects back will be your own.

Hindy Hecht, MA has worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for 15 years. She is a Director at Ohel Bais Ezra. Tzivy Ross Reiter, LCSW-R, has written extensively about issues related to mental health and developmental disabilities.

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