Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, July 22, 2007


In a recent post, Jannalou discussed an educational charity in British Columbia that gives presentations in schools about autism and the diversity of the human mind. The group, which is called the Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society, teaches children that differences are okay.

I haven't seen the presentations firsthand, but from a look at the Friend 2 Friend website, it's clear that the group understands that autistic children want to have friends—that they're not antisocial or oblivious to their peers' existence, but instead have problems making friends because their peers are ignorant about, and uncomfortable with, their differences.

This is a very important point. All too often, when autistic children do not have friends, they are assumed to be suffering from some mysterious and innate social defect. It's quite refreshing indeed to discover professionals and educators like those at Friend 2 Friend, who recognize that the main problem is prejudice and that the "cure" is teaching the majority population not to fear autistics.

As Jannalou points out, however, there are aspects of the Friend 2 Friend program that need to be changed—in particular, a "sensory simulation game." By their nature, disability simulations tend to create a misleading and overly negative impression of whatever condition is being simulated. Jannalou also observes that accurate information about autism often is hard to find and that common points of reference can be hard to identify and explain. She asks: What are good experiential alternatives to disability simulations? How do we get the right information out there?

I have a few thoughts. First of all, the ultimate goal isn't to teach children interesting facts about autism, but to integrate autistic people into mainstream society on equal terms with other citizens. As such, we have a useful historical point of reference for this effort: Racial integration in the schools. It's not an exact parallel because society did not categorize autistics as a minority race in past generations; however, we do have a nasty history of "nerds" being bullied in the schools, and this prejudice is akin to racism in that the victims are singled out because they are perceived as a different kind of people.

Although the concept of the autism spectrum is a very recent development, there are many parents and other family members who, during their own school years, had only a few friends because they were seen as "nerdy" or "weird." That is to say, the label may be new, but the prejudice is not; we're talking about a minority group that, while never officially segregated, hasn't been fully integrated into mainstream society in the modern era, either.

How did educators deal with the challenges of racial integration? Certainly not by putting Afro wigs on the white kids or otherwise trying to simulate the experience of being black. Nor did they bring games into the classroom to teach selected facts about blackness, without any actual black folks being involved. Rather, they emphasized making personal connections with real people. Black community leaders came into the schools and gave presentations about their culture and history. Teachers made a point of regularly assigning children of different races to work together on class projects and community activities. Educational television programs like Sesame Street showed children of all colors playing happily together.

I'd like to see Friend 2 Friend get together with The Autism Acceptance Project and create school presentations in which autistic singers and artists visit the schools, talk about their lives, and display their art; autistic university students discuss their interests, their ambitions, and what has made school easier or harder for them; people from multigenerational autistic families build exhibits illustrating their family's culture and history; and so forth.

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  • You might be interested in the lead up discussion to Janna's post
    here on Michelle's board

    By Blogger jypsy, at 10:38 AM  

  • jypsy: Thanks, I hadn't seen that discussion and was not trying to take anyone's side in my post. Having read it now, I agree with Michelle Dawson that vision-distorting glasses are a very inaccurate way to simulate autistic perceptual differences. I had been thinking that a "sensory simulation game" might include something like overly bright lights, flickering fluorescent bulbs, and loud startling noises. (That also would be misleading, of course, because not all autistics have sensory hypersensitivities, but it would be less inaccurate, anyway.)

    By Blogger abfh, at 12:43 PM  

  • I agree 100% abfh. Even though there are many people my age who sat next to an autistic kid in school, most don't have a clue that they know anyone autistic. Only visibility and true integration into society is going to make the difference.

    As far as simulations go, maybe they should dress the kids up like "nerds", take away their phones and other gadgets and drop them off at the mall for a day. The experience of being treated like a freak show is something everyone should get to experience at least once.

    By Blogger Bev, at 2:53 PM  

  • Just a quick note - I didn't post the link to the original discussion because of Michelle's prior stated preference for not crossing platforms. Should I add a link to that discussion to my post? I didn't want her to feel singled out or anything, which is why I didn't name names.

    The other comment I want to make has to do with how most other people who read that exchange seem to get Michelle's point right away, and I'm still not totally sure what she was getting at (and probably never will be, since I didn't realise I wasn't understanding her point so was unable to ask her for clarification at the time). How does that work, exactly? And is there anything I could have done differently - in my reading, interpretation, whatever - to have recognised that I wasn't understanding her properly? Because this is a common problem for me, especially in the last year or so. (And it's part of what sparked my most recent blog post.)

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 7:34 PM  

  • Bev: Yes, most people know someone autistic and aren't aware of it. The stereotypes are so far removed from reality as to be almost unrecognizable.

    Jannalou: Because your question about alternatives to disability simulations stands on its own, I think your post is OK without a link to the original discussion. As for your question about how to improve communication, I'll write a comment on your blog about that.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:52 PM  

  • Thanks, abfh. I look forwards to your comment.

    I love the idea you give here, of having autistic adults go into schools to talk about their lives with the children. It's something that I can see as being immensely beneficial to everyone involved.

    I have given both Heather & Estee one another's contact information, so hopefully they'll connect and have some wonderful ideas of their own!

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 12:02 AM  

  • I think all these ideas are good and I dont have any better ones.

    However, I think that teaching kids about diversity is a comlex issue that is often treated too lightly.

    Some of the efforts to teach kids about racial diversity remind of Nancy Reagans "Just Say No" to drugs campaign or putting warning labels on cigarette packages.

    Kids are taught to classify people and place value judgements on those classifications.More identifiable negative stereotypes just add to the problem.

    They are not born feeling this way but they are taught this in many aspects of their lives.This often includes their homes and many other things that teachers tell them sends them this message.

    I hope that it will help to teach kids that one clasification such as autistic has more value than they thought and I think it can. However somehow people of all ages need to be reminded of the purity of their heart when they were very small children before they were taught how to judge people. Helping people unlearn and relearn this is a very big job.

    By Blogger Ed, at 8:01 AM  

  • Yes, yes and yes. Thank you.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 10:40 PM  

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