A couple weeks ago, I was with my 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son at a public park pool in our community. It’s generally a great place to connect with friends from school. But not all children are friendly — or at least they say some pretty unfriendly things. One group of 14ish-year-olds made my son particularly upset when he tried to interact with them. Seeing his anguish, a couple of them initiated personal apologies to him on their own. And while that social bravery was impressive, it was like this illustration:
So while I’m thinking about it, I’d love to share with you parents and summer day camp directors and staff members a top five talking points list about encouraging healthy social interaction in the community — especially because around 15% of the children they encounter will have some neurological difference, or invisible disability.
- We are all different. Some differences you can see, like hair color or wearing glasses. Others you can’t, because they’re based in the brain. Brain-based differences cause some children to perceive parts of their world ways most other people do not. There’s nothing “wrong” with their perception; it’s just different.
- While we are all different, we all want to belong. Some kids are better at expressing their desire to be friends than others. No matter what, no child wants to be told to “Go away” or hear “Leave me alone” when they’re trying to make a social connection. If you’re already hanging out with a group of friends, consider inviting the child who approached you to hang out, too — even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- If the child who approached you to play says something that makes you uncomfortable, tell him or her in a matter-of-fact but helpful way. Better yet, give them a more appropriate thing to say or question to ask. Often times, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fewer social tools in their tool box, or may use them in a clumsy way. They’re trying; be respectful of their attempts, but also aware of your own boundaries.
- Really consider how you would want to be treated if you were brought into a place where you didn’t know anybody. Some of your friends might think it’s funny to mess with someone with a brain-based difference. They might not think right away about how that child is understanding others’ intentions. This might just seem playful to you or to them, but it’s really called disability harassment; and it’s against the law.
- If you see or hear someone being treated in an unkind way, please bring it to the attention of a nearby responsible adult. If that’s at the pool, it’s a lifeguard. If it’s at camp, it’s a counselor. Everyone has a right to feel safe and respected in our community. At all times. No matter what.