Embracing Differences

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Jaiden Gray and his family work to change the way younger children interact with their peers who have special needs.

Like many children his age, Jaiden Gray is just looking to make a connection. He tries to strike up conversations about popular subjects, is always willing to share his beloved Legos, and generally loves sharing in the company of his peers. The only problem is they sometimes don’t know how to act or react when he works up the courage to make an attempt.

“They see him as different due to his mannerisms and that can often lead them to being fearful, isolating, aggressive or just plain cruel,” said his grandmother and guardian Tamera Bang.

Their reaction, she said, is something they have been dealing with for most of his life and she is tired of it happening.

“It’s completely heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s just absolutely devastating to see his typically developing peers treat him and others this way because of their outward appearance or how they behave.

“Something has to change.”

The breaking point for the special needs teacher’s aide came during a recent trip to a local park on the Westside when Jaiden walked up to a group of boys around his age to talk about the popular game Fortnite.

“He’s obsessed with that game so his interest was piqued when he overheard them talking about it,” she said.

Recalling the lessons he learned in school and in therapy upon his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, Jaiden took the chance to possibly form a new connection about their shared interest.

It was an experience that got progressively worse.

“At first, they barely acknowledged his presence and Jaiden looked to me for support,” Bang said. “I made a gesture of encouragement because I know how much it took for him to go up and speak to new people and then they started calling him names.”

Like some children with autism, Jaiden often has a hard time differentiating between when someone is joking with him and when someone is being mean. And so he did what he normally does when he sees people laughing and smiling – he laughed and smiled along too.

“He didn’t realize what was happening until his younger brother Jace got upset on his behalf and started telling the boys to be nicer,” said Bang. “Then it dawned on him what had happened and he got really upset too.”

When the trio returned home, Bang started recalling similar moments in his life. There was the time when he was at school and called the “R” word after he had a meltdown about indoor recess (he dislikes the rain and noisy environments). There was the time he was made fun of after an epileptic incident in the classroom. There was the time he was teased for separating toys into designs and patterns that made sense only to him. And there was the time when he invited his entire class to his home for a birthday party and only one person showed up.

“It can be so exhausting,” Bang said. “He’s such a bright, funny, creative kid with so much to offer this world and I just want others to see him the way that I do. I just want them to give him and others like him a chance to show that just because they have differences doesn’t mean they are completely different.”

To try to change the way younger children interact with their peers who have special needs, Bang has been brainstorming methods parents and schools can employ to make sure they are accepting of others rather than fearful or isolating.

“I think they should try to use the Sesame Street model,” she said. “They recently introduced Julia, a character who has autism, and her fellow peers have done a great job learning about her differences and accepting her for who she is.”

At the school level, Bang said it wouldn’t hurt to have individualized programs that discourages the bullying of others.

In the district where Jaiden is a student, they do put an emphasis on anti-bullying and inclusion, says Sandy Nekoloff, the executive director of communications for the South-Western City Schools District.

She explained that at the elementary school level, they follow the seven virtues based on the basic school research of Dr. Ernest Boyer which emphasizes honesty, respect, responsibility, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance and giving.

She also added that they employ the responsive classroom which empowers educators to create safe, joyful and engaging learning communities where all students have a sense of belonging. Nekoloff further explained that each school has its own specialized program to bring children of all development abilities together and are always willing to look into doing more.

As for the parental education aspect, Nekoloff said they often work with the Parent Teacher Association to offer anti-bullying research, resources and programs such as Box Out Bullying.

Relatedly, Dr. Charles Albright, a psychology faculty member at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Child Development Center suggested that parents speak to their children about the physical or behavioral differences of their peers so they do not have a fear or distrust of mannerism that may come across as atypical.

“It is important that parents teach their children that these differences do not mean that children with autism are not smart, that they cannot be your friends, or that they cannot have fun with you,” he wrote in an email. “Everyone is different. Everyone has areas where they excel and areas where they have challenges. It is important to help children learn to have respect for all of their peers and empathy for those who have challenges.”

“If children learn to recognize and have compassion for the differences of others,” he added, “they can learn that children with autism have as many similarities to them as they have differences.”

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