Sunday, October 26, 2008

Becoming an Autism Educator

Originally published in the New York Times Lesson Plans blog (plus an excerpt in the Sunday NY Times!).

For the first time in my six-year teaching career, I am not completely freaked out by going back to school. I have, however, more than paid my dues to reach this stage of teacher emotional stability. In my first year of teaching, I freaked out not only in September, but pretty much every day (and well into every night) of the school year. At the time, I taught teenagers with learning disabilities in the South Bronx, including many emotionally disturbed students. I somehow managed to stick it out, and the next year, I met a Bronx teenager who would change my life and set me on my current career path.

Jeremy has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As guilty as I feel admitting this as a teacher, there’s no denying that Jeremy was my favorite student. He may always be. While other teachers seemed exasperated by Jeremy’s autistic quirks, I got along with him easily. We hung out during lunch. He fixed the classroom computers and shared his unique life insights. He also easily passed a New York State Science Regents exam on his first try, which quickly shifted the school administration’s attitude from, “We have to get rid of this kid,” to, “We need this kid for our numbers.” Sadly, Jeremy didn’t exactly receive a stellar public education in the Bronx. I often wondered how much further he could have gone had he received stronger educational support from an early age.

Jeremy taught me that working with students with autism was what I wanted to do with my life. I began training with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, where I learned behavioral techniques for supporting children with autism in the classroom. Simply by circumstance, not choice, I began working with younger kids. This was because nearly all New York City and State funding for autism education is geared toward early intervention and preschool services. When children with autism reach kindergarten, they often lose their services. So it’s actually quite difficult to make a living as an autism educator to older kids in New York. There’s simply no money there. I miss teenagers like Jeremy, but, as it turns out, teaching the little ones is my forte. This is mostly because I’m a 34-year-old with a four-year-old sense of humor.

I now provide preschool and home-based services to children with autism spectrum disorders, mostly in Manhattan. I also occasionally work with children with other special needs. Last school year, I worked closely with a boy recovering from leukemia. He is now in full remission and about to begin life as a mainstreamed kindergartner! I have become a huge proponent of mainstreaming at an early age, and I love working with special needs students in mainstream pre-school classrooms. My goal is to help them prepare for fully mainstreamed kindergarten and elementary school educations. They, in turn, help me stay grounded.

In the ideal scenario, a few months into the school year, if I do my job well, an outsider will walk into the pre-school classroom and have little idea which teacher is the special needs teacher and which kid is the special needs student. My first few months with a student can be challenging, but with the right approach, the next six months of the school year are relatively smooth. Being a special education itinerant teacher (SEIT) requires a balancing act of supporting, but not stifling, my students. I often interact with the other kids in the classroom, and they tend to see me as one of their teachers, too. Most of them don’t really know (or care) that I’m officially there for one student. At the pre-school age, there is little stigma in receiving special needs services. The kids have not yet developed that sort of prejudice. If there is any stigma, it comes from the adults.

Preschool started this week. I had a wonderful summer of teaching part-time and hanging out with kids on city playgrounds. There are moments when I can’t believe I get paid to do this (tempered, of course, by moments when I don’t get paid nearly enough to do this.) This summer, there were more of the former. I worked with two students at their summer camps, and I worked weekends with one student at his family’s country home. Summer seemed to have a superhero theme. Two girls showed up to summer camp dressed as Spider-Man and Batman for no apparent reason (other than the obvious cool factor). I played superheroes on the playground and blasted off with a (highly imaginative) student from the tip of the Egyptian pyramids into outer space. (Yes, my job is cooler than yours.) I saw preschoolers develop seemingly random, yet fervent obsessions with the state of Wyoming and chicken pot pie.

I also experienced several language breakthroughs with a student, one of which came in the form of a clear request: “I want Sesame Street numbers!” So we watched Count von Count, who I quickly realized, like Jeremy, has a clear case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Mwahaha! I then realized I was diagnosing a Sesame Street character with special needs and that I needed a break from kids before September. This school year, I am working with students at two Manhattan preschools and providing home-based, early intervention autism services to several two-year-olds. There is nothing quite like welcoming nervous and excited preschoolers to their first week. The two boys I will work with at school this year are old pros, having attended preschool before. But things are about to get more serious for them. It’s time to start learning to read, write, and share blocks without fighting.

It sometimes astonishes me that I found my perfect career. I never meant to be a teacher. I meant to be a serious journalist. But when my grad school classmates went off to write for esteemed media outlets, I went off to teach special needs kids. It made no sense. It was the best decision I ever made.


Blogger loonyhiker said...

I am so glad there are teachers like you out there for the little ones. I'm also glad that here in SC we do have services for students with autism on the high school level. I taught an occupational diploma program where we try to teach our students how to get a job and how to keep a job. Hopefully this transitions to postsecondary life and many still have the job they had in high school. Keep up the good work.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this story. Your job sounds much more rewarding than mine. Hmmmm - maybe I should consider a career switch ...

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post!

9:32 AM  
Blogger Janice said...

Miss Dennis, I enjoyed reading your post as I sat in my now empty classroom! I just finished teaching my 26th year with special needs children. School has been out for 2 days, and I’m still at school sitting…thinking…planning for next year (which is only a couple of months away).

We share the same goal, to help prepare these students for mainstreamed education. I was wondering if any of your autistic students receive ABA training? Many of our parents are pushing for it. I do agree, ABA is a very successful way of teaching students with Autism, however, it removes the child for extended periods of time from the mainstreamed classroom (2 hours a day!). I was curious what your thoughts are?.

Thanks, Dennis! Enjoy your summer!

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Lily in Alberta said...

Thank you so much. Your blog made me laugh out loud.

I have an autistic son, and as a result of many years of advocating for him, I have decided to take on a B.Ed degree, so I can help other kids like him.

So glad to have found a like-minded person. Enjoy your students. And yes, your job is cooler than mine, but not for long. :)

With love and laughter,

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Laura Minch said...

I am a fourth year psychology graduate student and I am conducting a survey to determine what obstacles public high school special education teachers are encountering concerning teaching sexuality education. This project is a social justice piece and any help would be much appreciated. Please feel free to forward this link to any public high school special education teachers that you think might be willing to help. Thank you for your time.

4:25 PM  
Blogger T_Sommer said...

This was an amazing post! I really enjoy hearing stories about impacts students have on teachers rather than the other way around.

Did you use any technology for your students (either high school or younger)?

11:22 AM  

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