Kids learn how autism feels – Vancouver Sun 2004

Vancouver Sun: December 20, 2004

Kids learn how autism feels
Mother started program after seeing son rejected by classmates

Michelle Ng

SURREY – When Heather McCracken plays show and tell, it is not a game — it is a mission.

As a child, Heather showed her girlfriends how it felt to be her blind father by blindfolding them and having them walk around a room.

Today, McCracken, founder of Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society, shows students how it feels to be her autistic son, Iain, by presenting simulation games in schools.

Students are each given a mitten, a pair of fireworks glasses, a pen, and a piece of paper. Peppermint oil is burned. The lights are turned off, and a game of ‘Simon Says’ begins.

Participants are tickled by the presenters, while also performing increasingly difficult tasks — the last and most difficult requiring them to use their mittened, non-writing hand to scrawl words announced to them through a voice modifier.

By deliberately stimulating four of the five senses of her audience, McCracken lets them temporarily experience what her son and other autistic children experience on a permanent basis.

Those with autism live with sensory bombardment. They are unable to process sensory information properly. Their withdrawn behaviour is due to their inability to cope with the influx of sensory data — everything from light to noise to the colour of people’s clothing.

Laurie Smith, a special education teacher for Surrey school district, says the common assumption that autistic people do not want to be socially connected is “one of the great myths” about autism. “It is not a matter of not wanting to be connected, [it is a matter of] not knowing how,” she points out.

McCracken learned that the hard way, by observing the interaction — or lack of it — between Iain and his school friends.

“[Iain] watched as his friends got invited home after school or to birthday parties and I saw his face when he did not [get invited]…there is nothing worse for a parent to watch [than] your child fall apart because they feel unaccepted by their peers.”

McCracken could not change the way Iain’s brain functions, but she could change schoolchildren’s perception of him and other autistic children. So she set out to conduct research and design programs that would enable other schoolchildren to empathize with autistic ones.

In Surrey elementary schools, where 99 per cent of autistic students attend regular classes, it is important to let typical schoolchildren understand what their autistic counterparts are going through.

Smith, who also teaches special education at the University of B.C., describes McCracken’s autism awareness programs as “empirically sound” — “parents doing good work and work based on good research.”

To date, McCracken and her team have visited with some 15,000 children and 3000 adults. Her program is being nominated for the Volunteer Vancouver 2005 Innovation Award.

The Vancouver Sun Children’s Funds pays for McCracken’s research materials, presentation handout supplies, and transportation costs.

Two years ago, when McCracken was entering the field-testing stage of program delivery, Iain, then nine years old, was asked by his teacher to write a poem.

“When I read the poem, I knew without a doubt that I was spending my time and energy doing exactly what I was supposed to be,” McCracken says.

The poem is published on this page.

The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund assists children and youth all year round, not just at Christmas. Donations can be made to The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Society at Suite 1 – 200 Granville Street, Vancouver, BC V6C 3N3. Questions about our charity can be directed to 604-605-2426.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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Volunteer Vancouver 2004 Recognition Awards Finalist: Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society was a proud finalist in the 2004 Volunteer Vancouver Recognition Awards in the category Community Service Award (Group). The awards ceremony was held April 19th, 2004.