Though not an easy decision, it was the best choice for us to send our son to an elementary school across town so he could take part in a program for kids on the autism spectrum. This choice, however, marked yet another time in his life when my son did not feel accepted in the place he was supposed to belong. This could have been isolating and sad, but thanks to the Understanding Disabilities program, my son is happily accepted and included in our neighborhood.

Having a sense of belonging and acceptance is important to all children, but can be a struggle for kids with autism. Many children with autism do not possess the typical social skills to successfully interact with their peers, so teaching other children how to be accepting and inclusive of them is vital. When a child who struggles with social skills or anxiety is invited to the neighborhood whiffle ball game or to join in on the slip ‘n slide, it’s a gift. It’s a gift that most parents may not even think twice about since it is often such a routine occurrence. However, when my child is being understood and included by his fellow neighborhood peers, for me it’s a special gift. Each and every time.

Children with autism often do not know what is appropriate to say in social interactions, and have difficulty understanding body language, facial expressions and other social cues. This makes every interaction stressful and overwhelming for them. The skills most of us take for granted can be exhausting. Anxiety, too, may prevent them from participating. They want to interact and build relationships with others, but do not have the skills to do so and their actions may confuse others. Their lack of eye contact and distractibility can come across as disinterest; abrupt answers often sound rude; and rigid thinking- especially about rules- can be hard to handle. Kids with autism can, however, and do learn to act appropriately in social situations and make friends with the right help. For this to be most effective, parents, teachers and other children need to accept differences, and be understanding of the child’s uniqueness. Kids with autism may struggle interacting, but in other ways they are just like any child. They need someone to show them the way, find common interests and help them belong.

Reaching out a hand in friendship often leads to unexpected rewards. One summer day when invited to play baseball, my son reluctantly joined in but soon impressed the neighborhood boys when he launched the ball onto my neighbor’s roof. High fives all around, and a new designated hitter drafted.

I wish everyone could better understand the struggles my child goes through each day. He works hard every day to improve upon his skills yet struggles socially and hasn’t yet fully experienced the meaning of a true friend. He does though fully belong in our home. And thanks to Understanding Disabilities programming, he belongs in our neighborhood as well. Just as he is. Silly, smart, funny, and wonderful.

“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires is to be who we are.” The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.