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Fair Doesn’t Have to Mean Equal

This article was contributed by Bobbi Wells, an Autism Resource Specialist and mom to a son with autism.

In a world where it seems to be politically correct to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same privileges, we often miss the opportunity to teach our kids (typical and not typical) a very important lesson: Life isn’t fair. And more importantly, fair doesn’t mean equal!

I believe it is far better to teach kids this lesson early on than to discover down the road that you have raised a self-centered child who believes he/she is entitled, or to have your child go through life thoroughly disappointed and angry because life isn’t fair! As a parent of a child with autism in elementary school, I find myself repeating the mantra “fair doesn’t mean equal” far too often!

It reminds me of a time when my son was in second grade and I was called in for a conference because he would not stop whistling during class. He had recently acquired this skill and was putting it to good use, to his teacher’s dismay. I suggested the teacher give him a lollipop, or a piece of gum, or even a Life Saver, to which she replied, “But that wouldn’t be FAIR to the other kids!”

As my hair stood up on end and I felt my head spin around and my eyes bulge out, I politely said in my kindest voice, “Well, it just doesn’t seem ‘fair’ that my son was born with autism either, does it? What better way to welcome these kids to the real world, where life isn’t fair! So tell me, in all fairness, would it be so bad to offer the other kids a small treat, too? They, too, might just benefit from some sensory therapy and oral stimuli!”

Well, she reluctantly agreed to go with the “discreet” Life Saver and what do you know, like magic … no more whistling!

John Thomas, a former training consultant for ASNC, told a brilliant story at the 2013 annual conference, illustrating “fair doesn’t mean equal”: A teacher took three children out of the classroom and told them to return one by one. The first child was told to come in with an imaginary cut on his finger. The second child was told to come in with an imaginary stomachache, and the third child was told to come in complaining about an imaginary headache. When the first child entered, the teacher offered him ointment and a bandage for his imaginary cut. Next, the second child came in complaining of an imaginary stomachache, and the teacher gave the child the same, some ointment and a bandage, and told him to go sit down. The bewildered child took the items and went back to his seat. Finally, the third child entered complaining of an imaginary headache, and the teacher again gave the child some ointment and a bandage and told him to go to his seat.

Then the teacher asked the class, “So what’s wrong with this picture?” The class replied, “You gave ointment and a bandage to the children with a stomachache and a headache. That doesn’t make sense!”

“Well, I wanted to be fair,’” said the teacher, “and so I gave each of them the same thing. Isn’t that fair? What do you think I should have done?” The class replied, “Give the one with a stomachache some Pepto-Bismol and the one with a headache some aspirin, not a bandage!”

“Exactly,” replied the teacher. “I should have given each student exactly what they needed. They each had a problem, but the same solution didn’t work for each of them, did it? I was trying to be FAIR, but I didn’t help the ones who needed something more appropriate and specific for their problem, did I?”

“Therefore, class, fair doesn’t always mean equal, does it?”

Not only are those with autism and other disabilities different, but we are all different, and we all have different needs.

Just as someone needs caffeine to get them going in the morning, someone else might need to flap their hands to stay focused.

Just as someone needs glasses to read, someone else might need to wiggle on an inflated cushy seat to read.

Just as someone needs to doodle or daydream during a long lecture, someone else might need to stand and pace back and forth or take a quick break to get back on track.

Why not recognize and provide for those different needs as no big deal? If you think it’s no big deal, no one else will, either! If you don’t focus on it, no one else will, either!

When we try to be fair, we miss the wonderful opportunity to teach our kids to celebrate their differences and to build acceptance of one another’s needs and differences!

Bobbi Wells can be reached at 252-722-2058 or bwells@autismsociety-nc.org.


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3 Responses

  1. This is exactly how we talk about this at Kids Included Together! Thank you so much for summing it up so perfectly. You guys rock!

  2. Leanne Strong says:

    I have Asperger Syndrome, and I don\’t remember any of my peers saying it wasn\’t fair that I got more supports and accommodations than they did. I don\’t even know if they noticed it. If they did notice it, and they thought it wasn\’t fair, they either kept it to themselves or they went to the teacher or principal (when I couldn\’t hear), and talked about it with them. But I don\’t remember any of my peers saying stuff in front of me like. \”It\’s not fair that Leanne has an aide in class to help her out, and the rest of us just have to do all the work by ourselves,\” or, \”it\’s not fair that Leanne gets DOUBLE the amount of time for her tests than we get for ours!\”

    When I was a teenager and pre-teen, I thought it wasn\’t fair that my parents let my brother (who is only 2 years younger than me) get away with stuff they would\’nt have let me get away with when I was his age (and he doesn\’t even have a disability). He could be in a bad mood, but when I was his age I would\’ve been talked to if I even showed ANY behaviors that indicated that I was in a bad mood. If I complained about something my brother did, my parents would say things like, \”he\’s a brother, and brothers do that.\” But if I did something that us girls are known for, they wouldn\’t have told him, \”she\’s a sister, and sisters do that,\” unless I reminded them.

    I thought my parents weren\’t being fair because when I was younger, my parents used to say things like, \”it\’s not fair that you get all the pudding and Ethan doesn\’t get any,\” or, \”it\’s not fair to Leanne that you get to choose the movie you kids watch and she doesn\’t.\”

    Here\’s a way other than just doing away with the \’equal fairness\’ that would\’ve shown my brother and me that fair doesn\’t always mean equal:

    Leslie/John: ok, Leanne, Ethan, let\’s say I told you guys I\’d pay you each $6.00 for each hour you worked in the greenhouses with us.

    Leanne: yeah?

    Ethan: yeah?

    Leslie/John: and then let\’s say by the end of the week, Ethan, you worked in the greenhouses for 4 hours, and Leanne you only worked in the greenhouses for 2.

    Leanne: ok.

    Ethan: alright.

    Leslie/John: and let\’s say I said, \”nice work, Ethan, but you only get $12.00 because your sister only got $12.00.\” Would that be fair?

    Leanne and Ethan in unison: yes, it would be.

    Leslie/John: well, think about it. Ethan would have had to do twice as much work as Leanne to earn the same amount. Would that be fair?

    Leanne and Ethan in unison: no.

    Here\’s another good way to teach your kids what fairness really means (if you don\’t like using money or food as an incentive.

    John/Leslie: ok, Ethan, Leanne, let\’s say I told you kids I\’d give you each a star for every time I saw you do something nice for someone else.

    Leanne: yeah?

    Ethan: yes?

    John/Leslie: and let\’s say I told you that I\’d let you pick out a prize at the dollar store for every time you earned 3 stars.

    Ethan: I\’d like that!

    Leanne: me too!

    John/Leslie: and then let\’s say that but the end of the week, Leanne, you earned 9 stars and Ethan, you didn\’t earn any. And let\’s say I said, \”ooh nice try, Ethan! You can pick out 3 things from the dollar store just like your sister! Would that be fair?

    Leanne and Ethan: yeah, it would be.

    John/Leslie: why would it be fair?

    Leanne: because we would both get to get 3 things.

    John/Leslie: think about it, though. Ethan, you would be getting rewarded for things you didn\’t do, and Leanne, you would have had to earn 9 times as many stars as your brother to get the same number of prizes. Would that be fair?

    Leanne: nope.

    Ethan: nope.

  3. Gwen Capers-Singleton says:

    Absolutely loved the classroom exercise! Spoke volumes. Thank you for sharing!

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