When Sam Michiel’s son Lucas started kindergarten in September, the Kelowna mom was very anxious.
“I was scared,” she told Global News. “My biggest fear was people would make fun of him, bully him, he’d be alone. He wouldn’t know who to turn to. Lucas struggles with communication. He won’t say I’m sad, or I’m lonely or I need help, so I was afraid he’d be alone.”
Lucas, 6, lives with a number of challenges, which stem from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, Autism, and Phelan McDermid Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects his motor skills.
“He is delayed,” Michiel said. “He was three when he started walking. His speech is really slurred and slow.”
Hoping for a smooth transition into the public school system, Michiel decided to do two things.
First, she wrote a letter to all the parents in her son’s class, hoping it would spur conversation at home about her special needs boy.
“I wrote a letter to the parents explaining what my son has,” Michiel said. “So if their child ever came home from school and says ‘You know we have this little boy, his name is Lucas and he does this.’ And the parents can say ‘You know why he does this? This is why he does it,’ so it’s not so weird or awkward.”
In addition to the letter, Michiel also got permission from the school to go into the classroom and personally explain to the children why and how Lucas is different.
“I made it really simple for the kids to understand, I made it fun,” she said. “I made them stand on one leg and if somebody accidentally bumped you, what would happen? You would fall. Well, Lucas stands on two legs but if you bump into him he’ll fall. If Lucas goes like this (scrunches face), it doesn’t mean he’s mad, it means he wants to give you a kiss and he’s so excited.”
Lucas’ teacher, Stephanie French, said Michiel’s efforts have made a big difference.
“The kids are just more willing to engage him a little bit more. Before, they were more stand-offish, they just weren’t sure how to approach him or how to interact with him,” French said. “Instead of letting Lucas figure things out on his own, they’ll go over and hold his hand and direct him to where we are going.”
Michiel is thankful for the support from the school, the teacher and Lucas’ full-time classroom assistant.
“It fills me with joy and happiness to see him accepted and to have friends,” she said.
Now she’s hoping the Education Ministry does more to equip all teachers with skills to deal with special needs children like her son.
“Special needs children are on the rise. There are kids being diagnosed with autism daily, it’s not going away,” Michiel said. “What I would like and wish for is for the Ministry of Education would provide basic training for all teachers, not just assistants, but for all teachers in the province.”