Research published this year by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine revealed that children with autism spectrum disorders, who typically have difficulty communicating and forming relationships, are far more likely to be bullied than their non-autistic peers. We love this story by one of our coaches in Washington, D.C., which shows how the power of play can make a difference to a child.
Aidan* was a sixth grade student with mild autism. From time to time, he would have panic attacks and his classmates would make fun of him. He also wasn’t very coordinated, so in class game time, despite how much I stressed the importance of inclusion, teamwork, and giving everyone a fair chance, few students wanted to work with Aidan or have him on their team.
No matter how well Aidan did or how hard he tried, the moment that he messed up the teasing would ensue. This made Aidan feel really left out, so he dreaded coming to class game time and often times refused to play.
Noticing how much stress class game time caused for Aidan, I started asking him for his thoughts about games I wanted to try and for his ideas on new games he wanted to play in class game time. We talked almost every day at recess, but to no avail. Then one day, about three weeks after I had started asking, Aidan came up to me with a full game description. He told me that he had combined a rules from a number of games that he had watched his class play and asked if I could use his game the next class game time.
I emphatically agreed but with one exception: he had to play the entire class game time. He agreed, but asked me to keep the game a secret because he didn’t want anyone to know that he created it. We shook hands and had a deal.
The next week, his class game time rolled around and Aidan moped his way into the play area. As I announced the class agenda and said his game, I saw Aidan perk up. I had set up the class game time so that Aidan was completely successful leading up to his game. I could see in Aidan’s face that he was really enjoying himself and no one was making fun of him.
When it came time for his game, I noticed that Aidan perked up even more, but then caught himself before anyone could figure out that he had created it. I went through the rules, reviewed the boundaries and expectations, and we jumped right into. Every single student was having a blast!
In the middle of the game, I asked Aidan if i could share who created the game. He hesitated. I asked him to look around to see how much fun every one of his classmates was having; he looked and, after a big deep breath, he nodded in agreement. We closed out the game and during our review of the game I asked who had fun. Everyone raised their hand.
I asked, “Who thinks that I made up that game?” No one raised their hand.
I said, “You’re right I didn’t. But what if I told you that one of your classmates made up that game?”
They called out in disbelief. “No Way!” “Who did it?!”
After I regained their attention and composure, I said, “Aidan made up that game,” and the whole class’s mouths dropped.
One student started clapping, and then another, and another, until the whole class was clapping.
From that moment on, Aidan’s grade class stopped teasing him and respected him just like every other student.