Fitting in with autism
Before the start of every school year, Cat Mayer writes a letter to parents in her son, Elliot’s, class at Orchard Avenue Elementary to let them know he has autism.
It’s a way to get the conversation started in households where the word “autism” may never otherwise come up, despite the growing prominence of diagnoses in the U.S. One in 68 children have autism spectrum disorders, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics updated days before Autism Awareness Month began in April, with the chances of being diagnosed with autism at one in 189 for girls and one in 42 for boys.
The spectrum of autism disorders, all related to brain development, is vast and can include complications with social interaction and communication, both areas where Elliot has struggled since he was diagnosed as a toddler. Mayer and her husband, Drew, said they want to be open about their son’s condition so kids, parents and educators in the school will feel encouraged to ask questions and interact with Elliot rather make assumptions about him. They also wanted him to be part of a classroom because he learns best in a social environment.
“We knew what he was capable of doing,” Cat Mayer said. “Class inclusion is not for every kid (with autism) — for some it makes them anxious — but for his needs, it was really important for us to have a classroom structure.”
Eight-year-old Elliot has trouble with social cues and writing, but his aide Theresa Stoddard has helped open a new world of communication for him through a computer with programs on it that help him learn and type words. Stoddard watches second-grade teacher Nicole Chase’s lessons from the front of the room and helps adapt them for Mayer at his desk in the back of the room. He is academically at a late first-grade/early second-grade level, according to Chase. He joins classmates for recess and group lessons, leads the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and writes a daily schedule adjusted slightly for his attention span to include breaks and speech and occupational therapy, which he gets in the classroom.
Chase said she made it a priority from the first day of class to avoid pulling Mayer out of class. If he or any other child “loses it,” the response is the same — stick around and work through it. Those instances are less common since Mayer and Stoddard have grown a bond over the last two years and she has helped him make friends with other students. She also helps other students get to know Mayer by telling them to tap him on the shoulder and make sure he looks at them before they talk to him and encouraging them to ask him questions rather than ask her about him.
“They’re so excited to interact with him,” Stoddard said. “He feels he’s part of the class.”
The Mayers say they are incredibly grateful for the team of educators focused on Elliot and look forward to a continuation of the progress he’s made next year in third grade. They hope other students have learned something from Elliot as well.
“Our hope is these children will grow up to be understanding of people with autism,” Drew Mayer said. “As they grow up, they will know more and more people with autism,” given the growth of diagnoses.