Lisa Smith is a stay-at-home mom with two children who have special needs. After doing her own research and attending conferences on autism, Lisa decided to write her own booklet that explained autism to kids who were in kindergarten and first grade. After getting approval from teachers, she was able to share it with her child, Tate’s, classroom. Mrs. Smith explains the importance of teaching kids about disabilities, “if they don’t know what the disability is, or that there is a disability, they just think the kid’s weird. There’s no understanding, and no real compassion. I don’t think there’s anybody that Tate goes to school with that doesn’t know he has autism and what autism is.”
At the age of 7, Tate’s mom pushed his speech therapist and school to initiate a lunch buddy program, where he would be able to sit with a few assigned peers who were also willing to have lunch with him, and thus be able to work on his social skills with people his age. Tate’s teacher sent notes home to each child’s parent asking for permission for them to have lunchtime with Tate, and they all responded with a yes. “When I thank parents for loaning their children to me for all of their lunch period, they often tell me that their children have learned more from Tate than Tate has learned from them. Compassion. Understanding. Perseverance. When they ask Tate a question, he doesn’t always respond right away. He has to process the language. Sometimes they have to repeat the question. And they stick with him. They don’t lose interest and give up on him,” says Mrs. Smith.
Tate’s speech and language pathologist, Jessica Barker, reflects, “It’s evolved quite a bit with Tate and his age and how far he’s progressed. He’s always had to be taught those explicit rules of social communication: to make eye contact, what tone of voice to use, that facial expressions and body language are important. Also reciprocity: he’s had to be taught that when someone asks you a question, you need to answer. Tate and I worked a lot on how not to kill a conversation. ‘Lunch bunch’ was a great way for him to take what we learned one-on-one and apply it.”
Even his peers see the progress he’s made. One boy, Jayson Brown, has been one of Tate’s lunch companions for the past three years. “He has his own personality. He’s respectful toward others. He’s changed quite a bit, just in his maturity. His manners are much better now, he’s more comfortable in his talking, and I think we’ve helped him with that.” Tate not only feels more connected to his peers, but also feels like he has real friends that he can talk to, which is a nice break from constantly being with a teacher, therapist, or parent. Stories like these make us realize the importance of awareness and the importance of teaching our own children to be sensitive to the needs of those with disabilities.