“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” –Harper Lee
During my tenure as a Primary School teacher I had the privilege of having special needs children in my classrooms. My first introduction to a special needs child was in a mentor’s Grade 1 Classroom during my training period. The task for that day was to observe the Educator’s interaction with the children. My attention was drawn almost immediately to a child who towered above the rest and was mumbling to himself. Since I knew I too would soon be taking over my own classroom, I was keen to learn from my mentor how she incorporated the needs of this child with the rest of the group. What I saw that day humbled me. My mentor’s patience and her absolute devotion to her group of children was not unknown to me.
How I was humbled.
But, it was the children in that classroom that taught me the most. There was to be a group activity that day. Team leaders were chosen by the Educator and she asked them to choose the other members of their team one by one. I expected this child to be the last to be chosen and already a wave of pity overcame me. That he would be the first to be chosen surprised me and I was even more surprised with the fact that the other team leaders looked disappointed. One very helpful and talkative young lady sitting next to me whispered, that team is sure to win, he’s our classes’ good luck charm.
Through the day I watched the children as they took him under their wing helping him, and guiding him for all the activities of the day. For them this child was no different from them. I adopted the same philosophy in my own classrooms and was blessed to work with these beautiful children who not only respond to the love that we give them, in return they leave us far richer.
My learning grew further.
While all my children and almost all their parents were supportive of their friends I have had my share of difficult questions by parents. But then how could I blame them, they came from a place where they only thought of the needs of their own children. The first few times I was confronted by some of these parents I reacted with anger and tried to make them feel small for their pettiness, as you can imagine that did not go down very well. Then I hit open a novel approach, I asked them to speak to their own children about the child whose presence in the class was of concern to them. Needless to say they never came back to me.
As a society we have come a long way from the times when the differently abled were ostracized and hidden away in homes. I did not study in a school that had integrated learning facilities, my own children do and it makes me so proud to see them develop compassion for their friends. Human actions and consciousness both shape and are shaped by surrounding cultural and social structures. And empathy is the key to understanding, when we learn to walk in the shoes of others we will bring hope to the countless in need of it. Let us learn from our children.
2nd April, 2017. Are we really that different?
I wrote this post a year back, today in honor of World Autism Awareness Day I am updating it with a few more thoughts that I have understood with 365 days more added to my search for understanding. Empathy is a feeling that can come naturally to many, but many a times empathy can also be developed. Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice puts it perfectly through his speech on Common Universal Humanity, fans of the Bard will remember the lines “If you cut us do we not bleed,” to understand where I am going with this. Without regurgitating the entire speech here I shall come to the point. People with Autism feel the same love, happiness, pain, sadness just like any of us. In fact sometimes they feel each of these emotions to a far larger extent than us. They just express it in a different way than us. But, feel they do.
How to find Empathy.
Who among us cannot recall situations in which we have felt left out, been the underdog or just a misfit. Do you remember those times? Do you remember the hurt that caused? Do you remember how it corroded your self-esteem? If you do, transfer that pain to the part of your psyche that does not understand the need for inclusion. Sit on the bench of hurt for a while. Reflect. I am hoping now you will find that simple human quality that will set you apart. It is called Empathy.
How can we ensure that we are as inclusive as we can be?
Do not avoid. Do not look away. Speak to these beautiful people just as you would to any interesting stranger. But tread with caution, do not give them a verbal overload. Then give them time to respond they take time to organize their thoughts. Be patient. Be positive. Be supportive. Give them Love and find it making its way back to you a thousand fold.