It’s World Autism Awareness Day. It’s estimated 1 in 68 children are on the Autism Spectrum (although who really knows). There is little that is actually concrete about Autism. I usually only say one thing as “fact” when I speak about it. I say “If you know one kid with Autism, then you know One kid with Autism” because they are all so vastly different in ability, intellect, and interest.
I started working with kids with Autism almost by accident. I was 21, and a girl I knew from church said a family where she worked was looking for a person to work a few days a week with their son at the daycare. He had Autism. I was familiar with Autism because there was a boy with Autism in the Sunday School class I taught, and my mom was friends with his mom. But that was about it. I didn’t understand functions of behavior, I didn’t understand speech delays, I didn’t understand stimulatory behavior. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Or how much I would love it.
The first few days, I worked closely with another therapist and the Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to learn what we wanted to work on with him and the programs we were going to run. I learned how to track behavior (later learning that everyone has their own little system, so learning to track starts again with each new client/job). I learned how to ignore maladaptive behavior and reinforce appropriate behavior. I learned how to get a kid to engage with another child and how to become a reinforcing presence in the room. I learned what to ignore, what to engage, and what to challenge.
And then, I changed my major. I didn’t want to teach general ed anymore. I wanted to help families and children with developmental delays, I want to make an impact on someone for their whole life. I wanted to reach into the world of Autism and engage a child who is trapped in there. So I changed my major, and I started working with Special Needs kids at my church, and when I graduated, I got a job at a small non-profit school in Grapevine. (This school is by far the best school I have ever seen for children with Autism, it’s now a part of Easter Seals North Texas). I learned how to engage typically developing children and children on the spectrum at the same time, I learned how to take data, modify curriculum, use a device for speech, and change things up on the fly. And that was the first year there, after that I taught in Honduras, then came back to Easter Seals, did individual therapy, and then ended up in Special Education in a public school. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge in my almost 10 years of working with kids on the spectrum, and I am so glad to have love and known so many students.
But I think the biggest thing I ever learned was how to treasure a child for who they are, instead of getting frustrated because they were not who they “should be”. There is rarely a day that goes by that I do not struggle and get frustrated. Children on the spectrum can be very trying, they can have violent behavior, they can be destructive, and they can drive a teacher up the wall. I would be lying if I said that’s not true. But, for some reason, I keep coming back to them. I guess it’s for those moments when they “get it”. When, all of the sudden, they listen and follow instructions independently. When they answer to their name, when they read a sentence, when they remember something that was told to them, when they have success. It’s not the big victories I rejoice in, although those are awesome. It’s the day the student finally signs the correct day of the week, it’s the time they sit at the table the correct way, it’s the day they can go to the restroom independently, or make a sandwich on their own. It’s that day when they remember the answer to question, or call you by your name. It’s little things.
I guess what I love about students with Autism is their genius. The way that they figure out how to communicate with you, if you’ll listen. The way they look at the world around them, and explore the things we all find mundane. (Like the student obsessed with vaccum cleaners or the one who always turned his toys upside down, just to check it out). I love how they listen, they learn, and when they are ready, they’ll show you what they know.
I think what the world needs more of is people who are willing to change how they listen, because if we can change how we listen to those around us, we would probably learn a lot. If the whole world could see that Autism does not equal stupidity, and that the behaviors displayed have a purpose, I think we would all be more accepting of all sorts of differences.
There are ways we can all help those with Autism:
-don’t stare when a meltdown happens. Who knows why it’s happening, and most likely, the child cannot control themselves. (it could come from lights being too bright, a song that hurts their ears, or fear of crowds)
-if a person with autism walks too close to you, ignore it. Who cares if someone got in your space for 5 seconds?
-if you know a family with a child on the spectrum, offer to babysit, or pay for a babysitter for them. It can save families.
-if your child’s friend has a sibling with Autism, invite them to birthday parties, and let it go if they grab the cake or scream.
-an Autism meltdown does not equal a temper tantrum. And it’s not mom’s fault. Sometimes, it is because they didn’t get what they want, but that’s not mom or dad’s fault, so stop the dirty looks. For the love of pete.
-JUST LET IT GO. Yes, a person will autism might yell, or grab something, or flop on the ground. Who cares? They aren’t harming you. They are trying to live their lives and they are doing the best they know how to. They may be dressed oddly, or only like the same shirt because it has no tags. It doesn’t matter. And if you explain that to your children, that everyone is different, that they are doing the best they can, and that there’s a reason for what’s happening, then the next generation might be a little more kind.
So, if you’re a parent, caregiver, or sibling of a person with Autism, you are doing wonderfully. You can do this, and your child is a treasure. If you’re the teacher of a person with Autism, you might get frustrated, but you are changing lives. And if you have Autism, you are loved and amazing and made by God.