Prior to becoming a parent, I admit to never thinking much about the term inclusion.
However, it’s a big part of life now with our special needs son, Carson. For us, inclusion means being part of a community that is understanding of him, supportive and genuinely caring.
Inclusion means our non-verbal son is still able to participate in a meaningful way in a singing performance at his school. It means our son is part of the general education classroom as much as possible. Inclusion provides him the supports needed to meet individualized expectations. Safe to say inclusion means the world to us.
It’s worth pointing out inclusion is mandated by law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but it does not require my son’s teachers to care about him on a deep and personal level. There’s nothing in the law that stipulates teachers communicate regularly with us about our son, indulge his current FitBit obsession, watch him participate in Surfers Healing in the middle of the summer, or make accommodations for a class presentation that requires speaking.
Although he’s just 9 years old, Carson has been attending Ocean City Elementary School for six years. Enrolled at 3 years old in the Early Intervention Program, he is literally growing up inside this school. The same could be said about his parents.
It’s been a bumpy ride. It’s been challenging. There have been days he hasn’t made it through an entire school day. There have been instances when we got a call from school before lunch about a situation. I have teared up in the principal’s office after learning of a particularly disturbing account of Carson’s actions. Pam has cried her eyes out multiple times in IEP meetings. These same heartfelt emotions have been shared by his education team over the years.
Through all the ups and downs over the last six years, we have been embraced with an overwhelming source of positivity from his many teachers, aides, administrators and therapists. They are supportive and encouraging no matter how much hell our son has put them through.
In many ways, being a parent to a special needs child is completely different than parenting a neuro-typical child. However, the same general hope is there. All parents hope their children will be accepted by the community and lead normal and active lives. While Carson’s life is anything but ordinary, we do feel he has been accepted in his community.
What’s incredibly special to us is how many of Carson’s classmates treat him. They know and understand he’s different but seem to embrace his strengths.
When we are out and about eating dinner or at a sports game, these kids and their parents always make a point of saying hello to Carson. Because he’s shy, introverted and doesn’t talk, Carson typically buries his head as if he’s embarrassed. He has anxiety over these sorts of situations, but these friends never stop saying hello, although they know he’s not going to reply. This past Saturday one of his school classmates walked past Carson after finishing a soccer game. He made a point to stop and say hello and waved at Carson. The boy’s father said hello to Carson and put out his hand for high five. Carson obliged. That was a big step.
A recent conversation with a mother has stayed with me for weeks. She said, “you know my Maggie loves Carson so much, right? You know that, right?” I remarked that I didn’t know it, but that’s it’s great to hear. I just knew their daughter and our son were in the same class in second grade, but I didn’t know she had a special affinity for him.
There have been other instances through the years. One conversation I had in Carson’s first grade year I still recall vividly. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I approached a classmate Carson had mistreated one day to apologize and thanked him for how he handled himself. He said, “I understand, he didn’t mean it. It’s just harder for him than it is us.” What the boy meant was school, and really life for that matter, was far more demanding for Carson than it was him and his normal friends. It was such an intuitive perspective for a young kid.
These examples prove a point about the importance of inclusion in school. These kids are becoming better humans because of their experiences with Carson. They understand not everyone is the same thanks to their relationship with our son. Although Carson has his challenges and struggles at times, they seem to focus on his positives. By being friends with Carson, they are learning real life lessons about empathy, which I think is one of the greatest traits a person can possess.
It’s a tremendous relief to have a positive school environment for Carson. We have a lot of daily battles in our world with him, but one challenge we are fortunate to not have to fight is with our school. It’s not taken for granted because we know it may not always be this way. For now, we are simply grateful and appreciative for all the souls who have impacted our son’s life.