Autism, Inclusion, and the Winter Concert

I knew it was going to be a long shot, but I had my hopes up. Last week my eldest son’s teacher told me that after three years of my asking to have him participate in some grade-level performance, they were going to try and have Lil D take part in the fifth grade Winter Concert.

Let’s backtrack.

My son has been attending an autism classroom in public school for five years now. We’ve had our ups and downs, but for the most part, we have a good team — dedicated teachers and aides and a principal who has worked well with  us. As Lil D has progressed from grade to grade, his teacher has put in place more and more programs (at my insistence) that brings Lil D to interaction with neurotypical kids.

For example, for two years, Lil D has done a lunch bunch (last year with fourth graders, this year with fifth graders), where a group of students come to his classroom, eat lunch and play games with him. It’s a time to work on peer play and social skills. Lil D also attends music class and art class with fifth graders, joins them for recess on the playground and for gym class.

It’s not easy. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know Lil D is more on the severe of autism – nonverbal, prone to troublesome behaviors and tantrums, and poor social skills. He’s made great strides over the years, but he still has a lot of challenges. So to include him in activities with “normal” students  is tough – tough on him and on the kids in whatever class he’s attending.

This is why I have such mad respect for his school and the teachers and principal. They really work hard on inclusion, which is beneficial for the special needs students as well as the “normal” students – who are learning to have patience and acceptance for their “differently-abled” classmates. Lil D is a hard nut to crack, but I know he has friends in his school.

Inclusion in the Winter Concert

 I was thrilled when his teacher asked me if I wanted her to try and include him in the Winter Concert this year. I’ve been asking for them to try to have Lil D to participate in some school program for years. It’s the one place where his teachers have held back. And I understand why – it’s a difficult endeavor and though Lil D will learn some valuable skills from it, we all know that the real benefit is for us – his parents.

We just want to see him up on stage, see him doing one of those things “normal” kids do. In every way that I push Lil D, urging him out of his comfort zone, rocking his world – I try and make sure it’s for his benefit, not solely for mine. But this concert performance, well that was pretty much for me.

Lil D participated in rehearsals all week, and it wasn’t going too well. Most times he had to be pulled out because he would start to get upset and disruptive. Still, his teacher, his aide, the music teacher, and the other fifth graders all kept trying.

It’s funny – if it was my other daughter who was going to be performing, I probably wouldn’t have been so excited, nor would I have told the whole family about it. After all, many of the songs the children were  performing were Christmas carols. And while I respect the holidays of all faiths (heck, I can fa-la-la, silent night, red-nose reindeer, jingle bell rock, ‘tis the season, partridge in a pear tree, and deck the halls with the best of them) and don’t forbid my kids from talking about Christmas or freak out when they talk about their friends’ Christmas trees, I do try to downplay it and remind them that, “We’re Muslim, kids. Christmas really isn’t our thing …”

But for Lil D’s sake, I was super excited. I kept reminding myself that it was a long shot, even though all he was going to do was stand on stage with the fifth graders for one song. But to stand still for two minutes is an exercise in frustration for Lil D. And the concert was at 8:30 a.m. – mornings have been difficult for a few weeks now (he’s been fighting a cough, which is worse in the morning).

Still … maybe …

A Different Kind of Success

We took Lil D to school this morning, and he sat with us and his aide until it was time for the concert to start. He was already a little off – I could see him thinking, why are my parents here? He kept clinging to his father’s hand, laying his head in his lap. When time came for him to join the fifth graders on stage, his aide guided him to get up.

He wasn’t having it.

His teacher (who was sitting in front of the piano, as three of Lil D’s classmates from his autism class were also participating in the concert) came over and tried to get him on stage.

He wasn’t having it.

So he sat with us in the audience. I admit, I shed some tears. I would not be seeing him on stage. And, after about two songs, he started to act up and make noises, so his aide took him back to the class.

I felt bad, but I decided to stay through the concert. And the tears kept coming.

 I saw his classmates — * Sanjay, Carter, and Nick – standing with the other students, and they held their own. They are higher functioning than Lil D, but still, I knew it was hard for them to stand with the fifth graders for the entire concert.

Sanjay was on one end — he didn’t sing and was fidgeting, making faces, and stimming. The kids standing next to him took it in stride and didn’t make any indication that they were bothered by him. Carter stood on the other end, and Nick was somewhere in the middle. They both performed solos. Solos!

I’ve known these boys for nearly five years and have seen them at Special Olympic events, class parties, and in the classroom during the multiple times I’ve observed Lil D. I’ve seen them in the throes of their autism and in command of themselves. I know how hard they and their teachers worked to get them up on stage. Two of them sang solos. This was a testament to the boys, to the autism teachers, to the music teacher, and to all the fifth graders for working with these kids to include them in the program.

So Lil D didn’t get up on stage. But he tried. It was a bittersweet, magical concert. Shukar Alhamdulillah.

* Names have been changed to protect the children’s privacy.

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