You might think that words like “inclusive” and “community” mean the same thing, and much of the time you would be correct.
I recently began to see how important a sense of community is to our family, however it didn’t come from an inclusive program. It actually came to us in the form of a camp specifically for kids with developmental disabilities and/or mental health diagnoses.
Before you start to question where I’m going with this, please know that I am all for inclusion. It’s the vision of the agency I am dedicated to, and it is my own personal vision. Inclusion allows our children to learn from peers, and it allows their typically-developing peers to develop a better sense of empathy and welcoming to people who may look or act differently from them.
I do also feel that there is a lot to be said for groups where people can come together with a sense that the other people in that group totally get it. Other parents at the camp our boys attended understood when I might show up with a tear-streaked face. They’ve had the challenging days and have been through the battery of tests, doctor’s visits, school meetings and more. The staff got it too, and were always incredibly caring with kids and parents alike. To know that your children are with kids who all share similar struggles is comforting. For once my kid’s weird wasn’t standing out. I know. Controversial thing to say. But when you’ve been stared at for the stimming, the echolalia, the scripting of an entire nature documentary while in the shopping mall, you start to crave time with people who get it. You just do. And it’s okay to want that! It’s okay to seek it out! And it’s really good to have it help you balance out all the inclusive activities.
The most recent non-inclusive activity for the boys has been swim lessons specifically for autistic kids. It’s a very small group with an approximate 1:1 ratio (four teachers, five kids) and they PLAY. Speedy was really anxious, after having tried regular swim lessons for two years.
“I don’t have to put my feet down on the bottom, do I?”
“I can’t swim in the deep end, are they going to make me do that?”
“I am NOT diving off the board, that is way too scary”
“I don’t have to try to touch the bottom, do I? I can’t reach the bottom. I don’t have to touch bottom, right? They’re not going to make me do that, right? I don’t…I can’t…I won’t…I’m scared.”
This went on a repeat for 24 hours prior to the lessons. He asked quite literally every person he saw, regardless of their connection (or lack thereof) to the swim lessons themselves.
In other words, he was stuck. Really stuck. And even when he heard the answers, he was stuck.
But when we got there, and he got into the water and they began to teach the kids in a way that looked like play (genius tactic, btw), this child shed all fears and swam. He swam underwater, he jumped in from the side, he got super comfortable and he stayed there for the full class. No meltdowns, no anger, no refusals like we saw before. Just…fun.
Wonder Boy was his usual apprehensive self. Water makes him incredibly nervous, particularly around his face. He got through it, however, and only got out once for a bathroom break. His teacher is a friend of ours, and the mom of a classmate, so he was at the very least in comforting hands, and he didn’t cling to her nearly as much as he has to me in the past.
All of this leads back around to one thing- there are absolute benefits to the sense of community that happens when we can be with people who live this life, and there are totally undeniable benefits to the other sense of community that happens when the typically developing world welcomes us, gives us time to handle and process information at our speed, and takes the time to meet us where we are, that they may see the world the way that we do.
Two different forms of community, like a yin and yang, balancing each other out. They seem opposite to one another (inclusion and exclusion), yet they are related and both forms of community really need each other in order that both may be successful. Being in a group just for us gives us a chance to recharge after being in an inclusive environment. Being in an inclusive setting can bring us new and unexpected connections and knowledge, and lets us share a little of ourselves with people who can then learn from us.