I first wrote this post about ten years ago……. So much has changed in those ten years. I have met, worked with, taught, tutored, and loved individuals on the spectrum. I will be graduating next month with my Master’s degree in Education/Special Education with a Graduate level certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders. When I first wrote this post, the stat’s were 1:150 children being diagnosed on the spectrum. Now, autism is 1:36. Let that sink in. What used to be considered rare has now become a diagnosis where most people know someone who has a child on the spectrum. Over my 28 years of teaching/consulting in special education, I’ve watched autism go from 1:10,000 to 1:36. Autism is at pandemic proportions.
Autism Is Not A Dirty Word
As many of you might know I worked with and taught people with special needs for many years. (17 professionally as an educator and for 6 years before that as a volunteer, camp counselor and as a house counselor in group homes.) My goodness, have I been privy to some good stories over the years….some hysterically funny, some frustrating, some sad….but all interesting and good learning experiences for me. Well, about 6 years ago I had a kindergarten student enter my classroom. His entering my classroom began an adventure for me, an adventure that I am still on. You see this particular little boy with chocolate brown eyes and with skin the color of latte was my teacher. He taught me about autism by living out his story every day. When he first came into my life he was wild as a little animal. He threw himself to the floor in tantrums, he bit me, he was all the time spitting at me, he smacked me and he cried. I knew he had autism but I didn’t know much about autism back then. I had never had a student with autism before in all my years of teaching. I remember one day in particular. This little boy was having a difficult day. We were getting nowhere. Finally, mid-morning, I told my teaching asst. to watch my classroom. I was going to take this child outside to the playground. I didn’t care that it wasn’t recess. We needed to get out of the room. He loved the up and down motion of the swing, it soothed him. So that is what we did. At this point, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I sank down on a bench on the playground and tears rolled down my face. “God, I can’t do this! It’s too hard! He doesn’t understand me…and I don’t think he even likes me at all! I’m tired of the spitting and slapping and school has only been in session a few weeks. I just can’t do it.” These thoughts continued through my mind as I sat and watched him swing..back and forth, back and forth. Then I heard the voice…well, not audibly, but the voice was just as clear to me as if God himself was sitting beside me conversing with me. “DAWN, HE HAS AUTISM. IT IS PART OF HIM, BUT IT IS NOT ALL OF HIM. YOU WILL GROW TO LOVE THIS CHILD AND HE WILL BE SPECIAL TO YOU. RIGHT NOW I WANT YOU TO ALLOW ME TO LOVE HIM THROUGH YOU. ” What peace that came over me. Just like that. Now, those of you reading this might think I had some sort of mental breakdown or something that day on the playground. It’s okay with me if you think that…..but I know the Real Truth. From that day forward things changed. Sure, I still got slapped and spit on. There were still tantrums. The thing is something changed IN ME. Days turned into weeks, weeks to months, months to years. I worked with this little boy and he made progress…so much progress that other teachers were amazed by his transformation. I learned about autism and figured out his strengths. This child was intelligent in so many ways. His visual memory and his spelling skills were incredible. He learned better communication skills so he didn’t need to tantrum, or slap anymore. He was special to me and to my teaching assistant. Yes, he was even a bit spoiled by us. He had come so far….and so had we. Later on, my supervisors gave me more autistic students because of my success with this little boy. Over the past several years I’ve become fascinated by autism and what having autism means to a person that has this diagnosis. I’ve met people with autism, I’ve read and researched, asked questions, and had real relationships with children that happen to have autism. I’ve talked with their parents. I’ve learned a lot. There was another of my students that I also got in my room when she was in kindergarten. Talk about a stubborn little firecracker! But funny…I really enjoyed her in my classroom. She has become quite the artist at age 8 and has made so much progress. Sure, she has autism….but that is only one thing about her. She’s so much more than that label. That girl is going places and I’m very proud of her.
Now, I’ve been touched by someone in my own family that just recently was diagnosed with autism. He’s four years old. He has big, beautiful eyes. He’s crazy about movies and he looks mighty sharp in his dress shirt and cowboy boots. His grandfather and I enjoyed spending time with him this summer. His journey is just beginning. It will be a long, hard journey. It is a road that at times will be frustratingly difficult. His parents will want to cry as they get bogged down in the mire of school politics. My heart goes out to them…..but this journey will change them, and make them stronger as they advocate for their son.
Today, one in one hundred fifty children is diagnosed with autism. That is far too many. Hopefully, one day doctors will understand what causes autism. Hopefully, in the future there will be a cure….but, in the meantime, we can’t give up.