This is a post by Dr. Peter Faustino & Daniel Barnes. Dr. Faustino is a school psychologist and state delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Daniel Barnes is a Teaching Assistant who works tirelessly for the betterment of students with autism.
Play is such a common word. For so many it is synonymous with fun, laughter, and great memories. For families living with autism it often takes a very different meaning. It is one of the core challenges or symptoms of ASD. Difficulty with communication and socialization implies that play becomes work. It can become reminders of delays setbacks, or even when parents need to explain to others what Autism means. However, for the students of Fox Lane Middle School, on Saturday morning play meant ACCEPTANCE.
This past weekend I spent my Saturday morning at the playground. You see, I have the pleasure of advising middle school students once a week after school. This student club for Autism Speaks has been around for years and as such teens come and go with various ideas about hanging posters or making announcements to raise awareness. They have been great at bake sales to raise some money or wearing blue in April to send a message about solidarity. But what I witnessed this past week took all of our efforts to another level… to ACCEPTANCE.
The idea stemmed from our weekly meetings. Emma Goodman and Ali Glover were thinking about all the activities they have engaged in as part of the club. Their preference has always been for Tuesday mornings during extended home base when students gather in the gym for 30 minutes and “hang out.” On a typical day, you will find some boys shooting baskets from the foul line, others playing Frisbee, while a group of girls paint nails or flip through an iPad. What you wouldn’t know is that some of these teens have autism.
Emma and Ali, along with several other key members, asked why we can’t spend time like this every day or every weekend. My initial reaction was to talk like a parent or teacher or adult who thinks about all the safety, logistics, planning, and reasons not to try something. But teens don’t always listen to adults and in this case I was so glad!
By the following week, Emma had her friends working on smaller tasks: Where to hang out on a Saturday, who to invite, where to get play equipment, what food to order, how to advertise, and what fun things to give away. With enthusiasm driven by their youthful energy, the students had planned the very first Autism Speaks Play Day!
It was so simple. Ask the principal of the local elementary school if they could gather from 11am to 1pm at the school playground. Invite all your friends, family and neighbors. Create special invites for your friends with autism who you really want to spend more time with. Tell every local business and community group what you are planning. Pray for nice weather. And PLAY!
The event was breathtaking. To see parents drive up to the playground with hesitation and trepidation, only to have peers calling out, “Matthew is here!...Yeah Sean!... Hurry James!” The sight was beautiful. The playground was filled with simple activities. Swings, a basketball, a parachute, some sidewalk chalk, crayons and coloring books, washable tattoos, a jungle gym, bubbles, and other simple sensory toys. A local pizza place donated some pies (great for everyone except those who were lactose intolerant but the parent joked it was a small price to pay for the fun).
Parents of ALL the children brought lawn chairs or blankets. Siblings and passerbys stopped to inquire. It was two hours on a Saturday when most parents of children with ASD are searching the paper looking for things to do that would “fit” their needs. This was two hours of play, no judging, no harsh words, no strange looks, and no explanations. Just FUN. Just acceptance.
I can’t thank Emma and her friends enough. They see the world so much simpler than I do. They have no barriers, no reasons to not accept, and as a result created a memorable moment. The plans are to host this event every year (the Saturday of Memorial Weekend). But we hope this might be contagious. I think Autism Speaks Play Day could pop up in every community on various weekends so that every Saturday is a fun accepting day at the park. And who knows may it spring boards other accepting places…Mall Day, Supermarket Day, or Village Day. Then why stop at one day…let’s do Acceptance Month, Acceptance Year and finally just plain Acceptance!
Children with autism are perfect; we just need everyone else to see it.