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Separate but Inclusive: Special Needs Accommodations at After-School Events

March 21, 2011 - 2 Comments

My colleagues are not a shy and retiring group. If they need help, I hear about it.  If I make a decision they don’t agree with, I hear about it. I hear about it in-person, on the phone, over email, over instant message and over text message. Sometimes I hear feedback from these venues simultaneously! What I seldom get is silence. But, after reading Jean Winegardner’s post about making after-school activities inclusive, I’m going to listen a little more for the silence.

In a post for The Washington Times’ Autism Unexpected series, Winegardner talks about the challenges of shepherding her special needs kids through mainstream after-school events:

The halls were full of students and their parents all trying to get to their classrooms and meet their teachers in a two-hour time window. My autistic son went from being calm and happy in the car on the way there to spinning and humming compulsively as soon as we were surrounded by a school full of kids and their families rushing around with manic energy.

I started to avoid these events. They were too much for me to handle by myself and sometimes too much even if my husband could attend as well. This was very difficult for my kids, particularly my oldest, who is extremely social and loves to go to evening school events. If he said he wanted to go, I took deep breaths, steeled myself and dragged my family to the school. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t bring it up and we would stay at home. As much as I like to meet the parents of my children’s friends and as much as I like to get to know the other kids, it was just too hard.

After talking to other parents of special needs and teachers, the school staff tried something different at the next event:

The special education team set up a special program in a room. They had activities for the kids in part of the room, while one teacher talked to the parents—and we were able to talk to each other—on the other side of the room.

The activities were specially designed for our kids, but perhaps even more importantly, we knew that no one in that room was going to judge us. No one would see our child crawl under a table and think we were a bad parent. Because we were in a room with one door instead of a hallway, none of our children were going to run off. I was more able to attend to the actual activity at hand than I have ever been able to in the past.

she goes on to say:

There is an argument to be made that putting special education children in a separate room doesn’t help make them part of the community or even that it stigmatizes them. There is truth to that, but there is also value in increasing the special education community’s visibility in mainstream schools, as well as giving special education parents a chance to meet and support each other. Not to mention that if the choice is between a special room or having to stay at home, the special room wins for inclusiveness.

My big takeaways from her article are:

–  Speak up if you need help.  You don’t need to have the solution to the problem before you speak up.  You never know what ideas can come out of an open discussion

–  Listen for the silence.  Who isn’t showing up?  Are you sure it’s because they’re not interested? Are there barriers that you can remove to ensure engagement?

How do you surface quiet or absent stakeholders?  Do you have any tips for full engagement?

If you have an Inclusion and Diversity story to share, please send it to

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  1. Thanks for stopping by Jean! I also find it easier to advocate for change when I know it’s for someone else too. Funny how angst in numbers will galvanize people;)

  2. Thank you so much for this. I especially love what you say about listening to the silence. It is so true that people who are not comfortable attending will often just stay quiet. I certainly did until I found out that I wasn’t the only one.

    It is amazing what came out of my asking for help. I’m thrilled at my kids’ school for the effort they put in.

    Thank you so much, Olivia!