Embracing Inclusion: Helping kids make friends with people who are different - MetroFamily Magazine
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Embracing Inclusion: Helping kids make friends with people who are different

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

Austen Harrison doesn’t like it when people call her friendship with Hudson Franks special or unique. In 6-year-old Austen’s words, Hudson is a cool kid she likes to be with, not a 5-year-old defined by Down syndrome.

“She was very taken to him from the beginning,” said Austen’s mom Jill Harrison, executive director of Down Syndrome

Association of Central Oklahoma, where Austen and Hudson first met when Hudson was just a baby in a stroller. “She kept trying to bring him toys and talk to him. She’d been around lots of other kids, both typical and with Down syndrome, but there’s just something about Hudson.”

Years later, Austen seeks out Hudson when they’re attending an event at DSACO, makes video messages to send to him and invites him to her birthday parties. The fact that Hudson is nonverbal and doesn’t always reciprocate friendship doesn’t quell Austen’s desire to spend time with the spunky, adventurous boy who loves to go to school and play outside. Around age 5, Austen began to ask questions about Hudson’s behavior. Harrison explained that Down syndrome is something Hudson was born with, just like Austen was born with red hair. Some of the things Austen learns easily, like walking or talking or learning to share, can take kids with Down syndrome longer to figure out.

“We talk about how we’re more alike than different,” said Harrison. “When she asks about a certain kid, we point out the things that are the same.”

Eilene Franks, Hudson’s mom, feared when he was born that he wouldn’t be accepted or wouldn’t get to experience things that typically-developing children do like birthday parties and sleepovers. Austen’s friendship with Hudson has reassured her that there will be people in Hudson’s life who will gladly made the extra effort to embrace him. Austen’s comfort level with Hudson means a lot to Franks.

“She plays beside him, not trying to create something but just to be with him,” said Franks.

At the DSACO Easter egg hunt, Austen was intent on collecting eggs for Hudson, who was more interested in throwing the eggs, one of his favorite activities. Franks appreciates that Austen doesn’t give up and walk away, but instead asks questions to better understand Hudson, like why he doesn’t respond to her questions or takes toys away from other children.

“She’s been taught that it’s okay to ask questions,” said Franks. “The first time you get onto a kid, pull them away or say ‘Why did you ask that?,’ they won’t ask or try anymore.”

Curious questions can lead to compassionate relationships

Though Franks occasionally hears questions from kids in public that sound offensive, like “Why does he look weird? ” she knows they are innocent. Instead of reprimanding a child, Franks encourages parents to repeat a seemingly-derogatory remark back to the child with kinder language, like “Do you want to know why he looks different than you?”

Local mom Malissa Cook often sees people staring at or parents rushing children away from her 5-year-old daughter, Alissa, who has Down syndrome. She said most parents are scared to let their kids ask questions.

“They’re afraid it will hurt their feelings or they will say the wrong things,” said Cook. “As parents, we often shy away from things we don’t know, but if you educate yourself, you can also educate your child.”

Kristy Schneberger, speech language pathologist at Special Care in Oklahoma City, agrees that children’s natural curiosity is a good thing and adds that it’s important to explain differences in terms children understand, like someone needs glasses to see, hearing aids to hear or a wheelchair to get around. At Special Care, children who are typically-developing and those with special needs are integrated into classrooms from an early age, helping them all develop more fully physically, socially and emotionally.

“The youngest of little ones and toddlers will be seen being more gentle or even helping peers who are differently-abled,” said Schneberger. “So even before words are available to explain their differences, this early exposure has helped them understand and be compassionate, accepting and forming friendships with their non-typically developing peers.”

Cook’s two older children are typically-developing, ages 8 and 10 and still have relationships with friends from Special Care years after they attended the program. Although she greatly values the education Alissa receives at Special Care, it’s the lessons her boys learned about inclusivity and compassion that are most precious to her.

“My boys are so in tune with the feelings of other people,” said Cook. “They are not scared of people with a disability.”

Cook remembers her younger son, Cooper, insisting on reading a friend a story before nap time each day because he knew it helped him rest better. One of his friends used a walker and Cooper would run behind him and push him to help him play tag. After her older son, Jay’s, first day at Special Care, she asked him what he thought about a new friend in a wheelchair and he rewarded her with a blank stare, as if it hadn’t even crossed his mind. He helped a friend with cerebral palsy learn to sweep the floor by explaining how to use her functional arm to sweep and her “helper” arm to steady the broom.

While Scheberger said conversations about kids with special needs kids is important, it’s facilitating exposure to kids of different abilities, like Cook’s boys’ enjoyed, that is essential to shaping positive interactions and building friendships. Franks advises parents to be open to opportunities in the community, at church or on the playground for children to meet others who look and act differently. Though Franks warns that not all parents of children with special needs may be receptive, most are.

“Use people first language,” said Franks of interacting with someone with special needs. “Don’t define them by their disability, but allow their personality and interests to define them.”

Franks also appreciates when kids or adults speak directly to Hudson. Even though he can’t answer, she gives him a moment to respond and then answers for him, explaining that he doesn’t have a lot of words. Franks also encourages conversations about cookies, which she said is Hudson’s favorite topic.

Harrison recommends parents seek opportunities for young, typically-developing children to be around kids with special needs, especially if, like Austen, their elementary school doesn’t have a special education program. Schneberger encourages kids to participate in or volunteer with programs for kids with special needs, from camps and sports to social skills groups and sign language classes. Facilitating genuine interactions from an early age helps ensure that as children enter the uncertain years of middle and high school, they understand and can stand up for those who look or act differently.

“It’s not cool sometimes to hang out with the kid who is different,” said Franks. “But if that’s just how you’ve always lived, it won’t be as big of a deal when you’re figuring out status and who your friends are.”

Though Cook’s boys aren’t quite in middle school, she feels incredibly proud when she hears them educating their friends about Down syndrome or explaining why Alissa talks really loudly sometimes. They’ve continued to make their friendships from Special Care a priority, with Jay ensuring he attends camp the same week as a friend with Down syndrome, knowing it’s helpful to her to have him there.

“Now more than ever, individuals with disabilities are in our communities,” said Schneberger, whose oldest child has Autism and is hearing impaired. “I applaud those parents who are consciously modeling these behaviors of acceptance and even facilitating interaction and friendships.”

Inclusivity in action

Riley Eden, a 21-year-old University of Oklahoma student, wanted to facilitate relationships between the special needs community and the community at large, so he opened The Super Scoop in Edmond. The ice cream shop with a small-town feel, complete with indoor and outdoor games, opened in late May and employs 20 people, 15 of whom have special needs. Inclusivity and interaction between the typically-developing and employees with special needs and with the general public, all over homemade ice cream, was Eden’s vision.

Though Eden said he feels fortunate to have attended a high school where fellow students with special needs weren’t totally segregated, it wasn’t until he began volunteering with WINGS in Edmond, offering social, vocational and residential programs to adults with special needs and attending a Sunday school class with adults with special needs that he fully understood and appreciated this community.

“Some people are very uncomfortable around people with special needs or can’t see past their disability,” said Eden, “which is really a shame because they’re just another person like the rest of us.”

Eden’s eyes also were opened to the lack of safe workplaces and environments for relationship building for the special needs community. Eden hopes The Super Scoop will start a trend like he’s seen in St. Louis, Denver and Dallas when scouting similar businesses targeted to the special needs community. Eden’s parents, who were in the back of the store making ice cream practically around the clock the first few weeks The Super Scoop opened, are the first to attest that Eden’s dream is catching on quickly.

“I was really surprised at how much the community has rallied around us,” said Eden. “I thought we’d have a steady stream of business but we had people taking off work and lines out the door every day during the first several weeks.”

A sign on the front door explains the business model to customers, encouraging guests to slow down their hurried pace and open their minds, and hearts, to interact with the employees.

“Some people walk in expecting a fast line and for us to serve them but what I really want is for my employees to get to have that interaction,” said Eden.

Eden has seen customers’ eyes opened to the abilities of his employees with special needs. Typically-developing kids and their families leave better understanding and appreciating those with special needs and hopefully with the start of a new friendship with an employee or two. The sweetest realization for Eden has been watching children with special needs being served by someone who looks or acts just like they do, providing hope and encouragement to those families that their children, too, can one day find a supportive, fulfilling work environment.

“This is a safe place for families to bring their kids who have special needs,” said Eden, who was overjoyed when an 8-year-old customer with special needs told him he wanted to work at The Super Scoop someday.

When Franks is advocating for Hudson to spend the majority of his school time in a typical classroom,  knowing the benefit both for him and the typical children around him, she envisions him one day holding a job in the same type of inclusive environment.

“It means the world to me to know that there are people out there who are coming around to the idea that people with disabilities don’t have to be secluded,” said Franks. “It’s encouraging to see kids being taught to pursue relationships with people who are different—whether it’s a disability, home background or religion.”

For Hudson, his mom and his best friend, Austen, there’s a bright future ahead.

“Hudson’s differences are part of him, a small part of him, really,” said Franks. “It may affect a lot of areas of his life, but it doesn’t define him.”

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