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What can we do to create a welcoming physical environment for children? That’s often a big factor for kids with ASD.

Expert answer

We do a lot around peer supports because I think that much of the time our kids are just isolated — they don’t have any friends. And so when we talk about creating social skills for students and social skills groups, one of the things that research bears out is that an important factor is educating the non-disabled peers.

I was just in a classroom with a child with autism, and her peers have all been educated about her support needs and it is a beautiful thing to watch. And I think students have a very strong sense of social justice when given the chance to show support.

I remember when I was getting my doctorate many years ago, somebody made the comment that 25% of us would experience disability in our life. And I thought that was ludicrous because I didn’t have anybody with a disability in my family or in my life, and then sure enough my mom ended up in a wheelchair for the last 15 years of her life. And what was interesting to me is that people in society did not know how to address her; they didn’t know how to talk to an adult person in a wheelchair.

If you look at our schools right now, you realize that on average 1 in 59 children will have autism. The students in our schools are going to be the future parents, the future business leaders, the future politicians, the future school teachers. And so from the time that they’re in school, it’s really important to start getting them to learn how to interact with people with differences.

There are books, other materials, and videos out there that can help folks understand autism better. But when I think about educating students, it’s not a matter of saying here’s autism, here’s the neurology, but rather talking to kids about the fact that all of us have special needs, all of us have things that make us alike, and all of us are different. And so helping all kids understand that is important.

As I go into schools, I also see teachers really focusing on compassion and teaching kids about compassion which I think will benefit all kids in all settings. 

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