I sometimes forget how safe and inclusive spaces feel. So often, instead of relaxing at playgrounds and watching my children, I’m on guard — ready to go into full Mama Bear mode at a moment’s notice. This isn’t who I used to be, but it is who I am now.
I just spent a long holiday weekend at a camp for children on the autism spectrum. It felt different, and it didn’t take long to see why. It was a safe space for all the children regardless of their support needs. I didn’t have to worry about my children being picked on or bullied because they’re a little different. They were accepted as they are.
Inclusive Vs. Non-Inclusive Spaces
At the same time, my children had questions about some of the higher support needs of children at the camp. They weren’t judgmental. They were simply curious. We talked about how noise-canceling headphones can help some children manage a heightened sensitivity to sound. Repetitive words and movements often help ease anxiety. My children took it in stride because I did. They already accept that the world is full of different kinds of people.
I compare this experience to a recent one we had at another, less inclusive playground. My son was interested in all things Western and dressed accordingly. As a neurotypical person, I knew the risk of letting my son wear his Western wear to the playground. Some people might suggest avoiding the appearance of differences, but I’m not going to encourage my children to mask their differences to fit in. It didn’t take long for the bullying to start. I tried talking to the parent, but it was quickly apparent that the bullying child had developed a stunning lack of compassion from the example set by her mother.
Breaking Generational Cycles
The problem of the empathy-challenged is certainly generational. I’ve yet to meet a child who bullies who didn’t have a caregiver setting that example. So many parents openly tell their children to be kind to others, but the example they model isn’t kind or inclusive. None of us are perfect, but empathy may be the most valuable life skill we can model and teach.
There’s a different between being nice and being kind — just as there’s a difference between not being a bully and being truly inclusive of others. If we want the next generation to be kinder, better human beings, we need to break the generational cycle of passing on our attitudes about areas of the human experience we simply don’t understand. Perhaps we need to be teaching children to appreciate each other’s differences rather than tolerating them.
Here in the Deep South, so many families are reluctant to talk to their children about lifestyles or differences — and equally reluctant to take the time to understand them. They pass on their prejudices as easily as they pass the peas at the family dinner table, never thinking that the world might be made better if they passed around compassion instead. I’ve talked with my children about race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They know that other families may look different than ours, but they know being different isn’t a value judgment.
This isn’t virtue signaling. I’m not a perfect parent, and I struggle to adequately communicate some differences. I’ve even struggled to talk to my children about what it means to have autism. I’ve had to replace the ablest “high functioning” label for “low support needs”, to make my speech about autism person-centered rather than diagnosis-centered, and to help my children see their many strengths instead of focusing on their challenges. The learning curve for being inclusive is steep.
Creating Safe & Inclusive Spaces
All playgrounds should be inclusive. All races, genders, and abilities should be able to play freely without worrying about being picked on for their differences. We can either teach the next generation to judge each other by their differences or to appreciate them.
In the autism community, appreciation is key. There’s an emphasis on seeing individual strengths and having compassion for challenges. If only we all thought that way!
Cultivating safe and inclusive spaces starts at home. We begin there by helping household members understand the need for inclusive language and a broader knowledge of the full human experience. This is why representation is so important. Having entertainment that accurately portrays differences can help bridge the knowledge gap and better promote empathy.
This attitude needs to be extended into the school system and community as well by championing inclusive policies and being on guard for ones that fail to include all community members. There’s a mistaken idea in some circles that bringing awareness to some issues promotes and encourages those issues to continue. I’ve heard this argument used to decry race education, comprehensive sex education, and even in the creation vs evolution arguments in science class. But knowledge isn’t something we should be afraid of; ignorance is what we should fear. Ignorance is what encourages prejudices to continue. Knowledge can be a gateway to cultivating more empathy for others.
I’ll never fully understand why some people are so afraid of the words “safe space” or “inclusion”. Perhaps it’s a broader fear of their own vulnerability. I would be happy to live in a world where children were safe to play, to be included, and to grow up appreciating differences in others rather than tolerating them.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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