My first true experience with autism was in my master’s year of college. I was in the education program, and in our spring semester right before graduation, we had been allotted an amount of “contract” hours we had to complete. These hours gave us the opportunity to spend time in another school or another program. I had student taught for 3 years at my base school, a sweet rural school with a small special education population served through the resource setting, so in my contract, I decided that I should spend some time in an autism classroom to see what it was like. I was in the process of taking 1 of the 2 classes required for the certification, so I figured I should get a little peek.
Unfortunately, in all the classes I had in my education program, I did not have much knowledge of how to teach students with autism. Of course I learned all about the characteristics of these students (or stereotypes), but I truly had no idea what to expect on my first day observing classrooms at this school. Now I have a very terrible memory, but surprisingly I can remember my first day in this classroom like it was yesterday. I arrived in the morning, bright and early, and I was cheerfully greeted by not one, not two, but THREE teachers that all taught in this classroom. Obviously, one was a lead teacher and the others teaching assistants, but they were all equally important and never stopped moving, not even for a breath. This classroom was divided into little sections, as if it were a maze, but a very organized maze. There were these weird pictures of a little cartoon person everywhere giving visual directions (I later learned these were Boardmaker pictures). EVERYTHING was labeled. The teachers were so friendly to me, and were talking a mile a minute about “this area, these data binders, this student, the morning schedules, etc.” I could already sense how passionate they were about what they did. When the students started arriving, I was amazed at how well they flowed through the classroom while unpacking. Some of the students were not able to talk, but that sure didn’t stop them from communicating. They used sign language, pictures, and little computer-like devices to tell you what they wanted. The morning went by so fast, and SO MUCH was accomplished, and there was never a second of downtime.
In the afternoon, I followed a teacher that served students with autism in the regular education classrooms. These students were not much different than the students in the morning classroom. Some did not verbally communicate, but that didn’t stop them from participating with their classes. I was again amazed at the organized chaos that happened around me and how calm the teacher was. I couldn’t believe how much these students could do! I spent a few more days at this school, and I can tell you that each day I left in utter awe at what I had observed. These students were amazing! It was this opportunity that sparked my interest in working with students with autism.
Fast forward to my second year of teaching (my first was in a high school resource setting). I accepted a position as a resource teacher at a small school, where I would work with a range of students, including students with autism. This school was a full inclusion school, so I worked hand and hand with the regular education teachers, and pulled small groups as needed. I had one student in particular that just lit up my world with his “auptimism” (props to @auptimism on IG for the term). No matter what, he always came in each morning with a smile, and a “Hey, hey, Mrs. Dixon!” This was the year that I truly fell in love with teaching. I mean, of course I liked teaching and pursued my degree in it, but this was the year that I began developing my own philosophy of what type of teacher I wanted to be for my students, their parents, and my coworkers. At the beginning of the year, I remember scouring all the newly discovered “blogs” I had searched out, and after searching and searching and searching, only to find a few “special education” blogs, I decided to create my own blog to help others in my situation. From this year of teaching, I became a little more confident in my abilities as a special educator and as an advocate for my students.
Now, let’s talk about where I am now. All my life I’ve heard the quote, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Although cheesy, this quote speaks such truth. Last fall, I took a job in a self-contained classroom, serving students with autism in grades K-3. Since day one of meeting my students, I’ve been undeniably obsessed with my job. Obsessed in a positive, can’t learn enough, can’t do enough, way. I have been blessed with an amazing team of teachers that understand my goals as a teacher and my vision for my students. They have been there through the 247 schedule changes, furniture changes, and on the spot changes, and they never complain. In this past year, I have learned so much about working with students with ASD. I’ve spent endless hours online; in trainings, and with mentors in a constant search to best meet each student’s needs. Mostly though, I’ve learned from them… my students.
Patience is everything.
Students with autism learn differently. Skills we take for granted daily must be broken down into small, achievable steps. Wait time is a must; these little souls cannot be rushed. Once they finally get it, the rewards are exponential and irreplaceable.
Music is powerful.
It excites us, it calms us, it teaches us, and it simply makes us feel happy. In my classroom, we sing constantly. And guess what, those kiddos learn!
Nature is beautiful.
Outdoor sensory breaks work wonders for my students and it is amazing to watch how they interact with the environment. Fresh air provides something to them that they simply can’t get in a classroom. From them, I’ve grown a whole new appreciation of my world.
Happiness can be shown in an unlimited amount of ways.
Jumping, flapping, cooing, bouncing, lining up toys, singing, clapping, drawing, etc. Each individual I meet with autism has a different way of showing they are happy, and when they are, you can’t help but smile! I love that my students share their happiness so openly, and I strive to be as honest as they are. Laughter is contagious. In our classroom, giggles stop time.
Talking is overrated.
Just because a person cannot speak, does not mean they don’t have anything to say. Although it takes a while to “learn” a student that is nonverbal, when you finally begin to be able to communicate with each other, it’s amazing how much that relationship grows!
Get thicker skin.
People can be down right mean. My heart goes out to all these wonderful parents that have to deal with the condescending stares when their child is going through something that might not look “normal” to the unknowing person. At first, I used to get SO mad at some of the ways others would look at my class, but honestly, they just don’t know any better. I took it as a challenge to TEACH them to know better. I strive to get my students as much social interaction with other students as possible. Other children really don’t understand autism, but once they get to spend some time with my students, they start to see beyond the “different” behaviors and are more empathetic. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some attitudes you just can’t fix. Don’t focus on those people; they will only bring you down. By being the bigger person, you are showing strength those individuals will never have the honor of holding.
Never underestimate a person’s potential.
I am pleasantly surprised on a daily basis at things my students can do. They CAN do so much; don’t hold them back. Challenge them and they will rise up to your challenge.
I still have so much to learn about these individuals and from these individuals, as does the world. My students have blessed me in so many ways, and I feel honored that I have the opportunity to know and work with them on a daily basis. There are so many little things I used to overlook in my life, that I now have a true appreciation for. For Autism Awareness Month, we will be running a series on the site called “Spotlight on Special Thinkers.” You be introduced to some amazing individuals that have brought joy into the lives of others. They are so much more than their label. Read their stories, share their stories, and learn from their stories.
Happy Autism Awareness Month J