Beyond the Curriculum: Teaching Students About Their Classmates With Special Needs

SunshineEvery school year I go into my son’s class to read to the kids. The topic? Autism. When he started elementary school, I hadn’t planned on doing this at all, but early on in his kindergarten year, I witnessed an incident that made me take action.

While we were at the book fair one evening, two boys from Rob’s class came up to him and kind of got in his face and it happened. They started making the noises that Rob makes. They ran away, came back and did it again. All of this took place right in front of me and his brother. I gently told the kids that it seemed a little like they were teasing and they stopped. We left, and for the rest of the evening I had a hollow empty pit in my stomach. If this was happening right in front of me, what was going on during the school day?

That night I really thought about the situation. These weren’t bad kids and I just couldn’t believe that they were intentionally being mean. I thought about the WHY of it all instead of what happened. Were they trying to play with him? Was this the only way they knew to engage him? One thing was very clear. They didn’t understand him, and I knew then and there that I had to explain to the kids what was going on with Rob. We made the same decision to talk to Rob’s brother about autism when he was three, so he understood why his preschool friends played with him and Rob didn’t. This was no different.

Once I relayed the incident to his kindergarten teacher and asked permission to come in to read, I had to come up with a book. There are a lot of books out there, but most that I found were very siblingsince we're friends focused, or too lengthy to read to a group of kindergartners. Finally, I settled on the book Since We’re Friends, by Celeste Shally. It was exactly the right length and had a simple message. It is about a boy and his friend with autism who lives across the street. The book explains why certain situations are tough for kids with autism, and how someone can be a friend and help when these situations arise.

As I read to the kids, I also explained that Rob likes all the things that they like, and that he feels all the things that they feel and that he sometimes acts different because his brain works in a different way than theirs. I told them that he experiences the world differently and that sometimes he gets overwhelmed by sounds or lights. I told them that he has chores at home just like them, and that he likes to play and swing and run just like them.

I watched it happen while we were sitting there talking. They finally understood. They had no idea why Rob didn’t respond when they talked to him. They didn’t understand why he covered his ears, why he made noises and jumped, why he didn’t play with them in typical ways. They asked questions and I answered. They talked about how much they liked Rob, and how they wanted to invite him to their birthday parties. It was a nice visit with the class, but what was even better was what happened afterwards.

One day at school, another mother from my son’s class said to me, “My son talked about the book you read at school. He has done a total 180 with his attitude toward Rob because I think he understands him now. Thank you for reading to the kids.”

After that visit to the classroom, the kids became Rob’s allies. They helped him, they looked out for him, and most importantly they respected him because they understood his differences but also recognized their similarities as well.

Fast forward to now. Fourth grade. I was asked by his teachers to come in again and read to the class. I had selected different books in previous years, but this time we had to shift the focus a bit. You see, the kids help Rob a little too much now. They care about him, and want to help him, but independence is always a goal. I went back to the old stand-by and read about the boys that live across from each other and talked about ways that they can help Rob without doing things for him. The kids were amazing. Their suggestions were nothing short of perfect (show how to do things, reminders instead of telling him what to do, asking him to join in) but their questions were even better:

  • Why does Rob’s brain work differently?
  • How do you get autism?
  • Was he born this way?
  • Can people with autism get better?
  • Do you ever wonder what Rob sees and thinks about if he sees the world differently?

Their comments were priceless:

  • You know, Rob talks to me a lot more and plays with me sometimes.
  • I think we are more the same than different.
  • I always look out for Rob to make sure he doesn’t get bullied.
  • Are you going to come in and read to us again sometime?

But my favorite . . . the best thing I have ever heard come out of anyone’s mouth is this:

You know what, I think we just need to always believe in our friends. Believe that they can do things.

I am crying a bit just typing that out. Children are just brilliant. They are filled with so much love and compassion, they just need to understand what is going on.  The students don’t just need to learn about autism but about all students with special needs.  The kids in Rob’s class asked about the students in school that wear hearing aids, what Down Syndrome is and about physical disabilities. The more information they have, the better they can understand, relate to and empathize with their peers. If I had left them to come up with conclusions about Rob, who knows where they would have arrived?

  • He doesn’t like me because he doesn’t talk to me.
  • He is just weird.
  • He isn’t nice because he doesn’t say hi.
  • He ignores me.

We would be looking at an entirely different social situation for him if that is what the kids believed. I am so happy that I decided to open up the dialogue with these students five years ago. This amazing group of kids has added so much to Rob’s life, and I hope he has to theirs.

I had the privilege of reading this story to the entire school during full school morning meeting a few years ago.  My neighbor was kind enough to film the reading for me and the questions that followed.

If you are unable to view the video, please click here. Alternatively, copy and paste this url on your browser

~ Sunshine 

For more blogs by Sunshine click here


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17 Responses to Beyond the Curriculum: Teaching Students About Their Classmates With Special Needs

  1. Judy Cohen says:

    Try to read Mikey, to as many classrooms as possible. Education for adults and peers about children with autism is imperative. Awareness and acceptance are crucial. Please give copies of Mikey to the school psychologist, principal etc. Thank you!
    Judy Cohen
    Co-author of Mikey

  2. Sabena says:


    Thank you so much for sharing this video! It is very inspiring for a mother like me who is eager to spread awareness about Autism. My 6 year old daughter has Autism and she is in a Special Day Class in an Elementary School in California. I am working on a presentation, explaining to kids of the general curriculum in her school about Autism, giving them an insight in our children’s lives and hopefully helping our kids have friends! This month being Autism Awareness month, I was eager to do something for our kids and I approached the principal of my daughter’s school. The principal of the school suggested that I make this presentation and with the help of two other mom’s we are working on creating banners and taking pictures of our kids and showing to them that they too do fun activities like other typical kids. We also want typical kids to be involved in activities with our kids as this school does not have an inclusive setup and our kids do not get an opportunity to spend time with typical peers of their age.

    Thank you once again for this inspiring video!

  3. We did this too and it was SO IMPORTANT. Full disclosure. Kids are so compassionate when they know what it going on.

    We used All Cats Have Asperger’s, by Kathy Hoopman and had our daughter put a check on the pages that applied to her, so when we read to her classes & other groups, she was able to own what was hers, and not be lumped into a one size fits Asperger’s category. This is how it affects some kids, this is how it affects me, etc. Plus, the kids all loved the cat photos and bonded over those.

    Our son has PANS and we do the same thing for his classes, go in first week, talk about it, and it is so easy. No one bats an eye over the tics after it is explained. One of the kids wanted to know…and I was so glad he asked because how many of them were thinking it….”is it contagious?” I now always add that it is not contagious, to any educating we do for young children.

    One of his new friends this year (5th grade) spent hours and hours researching the condition. Every bit of free time he spent researching PANS. He has a very scientific mind, and what if he’s the one to cure it one day? Talking about it gave him permission to ask questions and look for answers, and fully embrace our son as a friend.

  4. emma says:

    I need some tips from you, you did an amazing job by teaching the kids about your son, my daughter has Down syndrome, and my dream is to teach her classmates about Down syndrome, she is in kindergarten so it will be the right time, I just dont know how to start. I have been having this thought for a while, since for the school children with disabilities are new, thanks.

    • Thinking Moms' Revolution says:

      Hi Emma,

      My best advice is to get really comfortable talking about and answering questions about Down Syndrome. Then get a bunch of picture books from Amazon or the library and find one that resonates with you and your daughter. One of my friends recommends the book Taking Down Syndrome to School, but a quick amazon search showed a bunch of other books too. I had to do a pretty extensive search before I found the one I picked. I hope it goes well for you!!! Good luck!


  5. Wendy says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I would love to read this book to my son’s 2nd grade class. I assume Rob was not in the classroom when you were there to read the book? How did you deal with that? Also, when and how did you explain to Rob that he has autism?

    • Sunshine says:


      When I first read to Rob’s class in kindergarten, he was not present. To be honest for me and for us it didn’t feel right. I wanted him to be there too. We had already talked about autism with him here at home. So the next year, I asked him first if he would like for me to come to his class and talk about autism with his class. He said yes. I open all the talks with his classes by explaining that Rob and I discussed at home and we agreed that I should come in and read, so the kids understand that Rob had a part in the decision for me to come. This may not be the right choice for every family, but I think it is for us. We started talking to Rob about autism not long after we started talking to his younger brother about it…when he was 5 or so. Not lengthy discussions but simple explanations. For example I might explain that autism is the reason he has trouble playing and interacting with the kids at school. It is not a frequent topic of conversation here, however. I hope this helps!

      • Wendy says:

        This helps a lot. Thank you! That’s a great idea to have him there in the classroom, so it is more open that way. Thanks so much for your help!

  6. Jennifer Power says:

    My NT son is in fourth grade too, here in Australia. He has a friend in class who is on the spectrum. My son is learning so much about his mate’s issues and struggles and he is learning what empathy is. This boy has invited my son for a play date and, in recounting the day, my son spoke with compassion and true understanding of the differences as well as the “alikeness” of himself and his friend. At school, this boy gets extra help and my son sits with him and does his own work while the aide is there. I am proud of my child and I am hopeful for the future. Thank you for another post that left me teary.

    • Sunshine says:

      Jennifer, your son sounds like a wonderful friend! Well, done mama…raising a boy with so much compassion and awareness. Does he want to come to Virginia to play? 😉

      • Jennifer Power says:

        One day we may just get to Virginia for a holiday! My husband was born at the army hospital in Fort Lee. I’m from California myself, so it isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds!!!! : )

        Every day I acknowledge the extraordinary good luck that my kids were born here and not there and that they were born when it was still easy (if not popular) to opt out of vaccination. Having said that, my first child was vaxxed to 6 months when my mama instinct finally woke up. Luckily my doc didn’t argue. He knew the truth. Awareness is growing now in Australia but with it comes official assault on our rights as parents. I see around me a growing cohort of vaccine – injured kids from infants to 20-somethings. And our national healthcare system bumbles along spending unbelievable amounts of money yet still unable to make a dent in anything really. But you know all about inept health care systems!

        I have always had a keen understanding that my kids are fortunate almost beyond measure and I make sure they know it too. Their future in inextricably linked with the future of your son, even here on the other side of the world.

        Thank you again for every thing you write. I look forward to a TMR post every day!

  7. MamaBear says:

    There is an insidious attempt in the world to return to the times when being different was contemptuously rejected, when the physically-mentally-functionally different were hidden away. We are at the point in our so-called civilized western society that kids like my grandson are at risk from the purveyors of humanity’s perfectability (imperfect, are you? We have a pill-shot-procedure for that). Thank you, Sunshine, for bringing LIGHT to the world.

    • Sunshine says:

      MamaBear, thank you for your words of encouragement! It was difficult to get started, but now that I am comfortable talking publicly, it has led to some great discussions with the kids. xoxo

  8. Judy Cohen says:

    Autism is the fastest growing disability in children. Our book, Mikey, a day at school seen through the eyes of a child with autism, is making a difference. This book was co-authored by a mother-daughter team, both in the educational field and phenomenally illustrated by Mark Fairbanks, a parent of a child with autism. Mark is the creator of the Island of Brilliance mentor program, in Milwaukee Wisconsin, for children with autism.What a great book to share with your readers as it explains what this child hears, sees, feels and reacts in the school environment.
    The book is a necessity for each classroom, as children with autism are sitting in mainstreamed/inclusive classrooms as I write this, however the children and often some adults in those classrooms, do not quite understand their behaviors and reactions to the school environment.
    Increased frustration causes bullying and teacher/family difficulty .Mikey is a phenomenal step to teach acceptance, tolerance and understanding of a child with autism. We have been fortunate enough to appear on morning news show to share this book and written up in online magazines, this book is making a difference. Please share this with your readers.
    Mikey is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
    Mikey has a facebook page .

  9. Donna Powers says:

    Give children enough respect, enough information, a good book, a willing parent…the world will be changed!

    Thank you Sunshine! You offer hope today and a simple how-to.

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