“You need to cut your fingernails,” he tells her. “They’re pointy.” She knows by now to ignore him.
“He goes wherever I go because he likes me,” she says.
“Well sometimes I don’t,” he shoots back.
They sound like a typical couple, the sort who know each other well enough to make these sorts of honest statements.
Amiel is 5 years old. Elise is 4.
He has autism. She doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter. They’re best friends.
At Early Emory Center for Child Development and Enrichment, Amiel and Elise are in class together. Early Emory’s preschool is an inclusion program for 12 months to 5-year-old children. One-third of the students have autism. Two-thirds do not.
“Sometimes he hugs me,” Elise says. Amiel smiles and nods his head. “That’s true!”
There is the bickering over age, such as when Amiel begins to talk about Elise. “Well, she’s 4 years old.”
Elise interrupts. “4.5.”
“You’re 4 years old, you’re only 4.”
“No, I’m 4.5.”
Doctor Laurie Vismara, the director of Early Emory, says, “We want to create playful moments of learning throughout the day. It’s through those interactions that we can build meaningful friendship.”
Vismara says research shows this inclusive environment benefits all kids. “There’s a variety of reasons that research shows this type of environment stimulates and promotes development for both groups of children. What and how we teach young children to learn comes from a combo of early educational practices mixed with developmental research from brain science. It speaks again to the opportunity of inclusion, which we would not get when we separate children and say you must learn in this environment and you must learn in this environment.”
For Amiel and Elise it was simple. They liked each other.
“The first time we met I think we liked each other,” Amiel remembers. “The first time we met we played with each other right. I don’t know what day it was. Could have been a Monday.”
Amiel’s mom, Rachel Wallenstein says they’ve had Elise’s upcoming birthday on the calendar since the middle of last year and that Elise is his first real friend. “They were connected from like the first day.”
Elise’s mom, Amanda Sabetai says their friendship was initiated by Amiel who helped to welcome her as a new student last year. “I feel like he did a great job reaching out to her when she was new, helping her feel comfortable and make friends.”
At four and a half and five and a half Amiel and Elise remind us we have much to learn from each other.
Despite differences, it’s possible to travel the same path, together.