They Taught Me: How Working With Students With Autism Has Changed My Life

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
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

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  1. zensenclassroom on June 2, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I have found this entry at a very timely moment.
    For 5 years I worked in a secondary school supporting students with a range of special ed needs. However recently, I have moved to working in a primary school, as a 1-1 support for a 5 year old autistic child.
    With no prior experience of working with young children and very limited experience in working with ASD ( occasionally supporting a 15 year old at my old job is very different to 1-1 with a 5 year old constantly!) there are times when I feel completely overwhelmed.
    But this is awesome, reminds me why I decided to meet the challenge of the new job.
    I think I've learnt more about myself in the last few months than in many many years!

  2. zensenclassroom on June 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Just typed a huge comment and managed to delete it 🙈
    Basically I was saying this is a fantastic page and I'm so glad I found it.
    I've recently started working 1-1 with a 5 year old child who has autism in a mainstream school. All of my previous experience has been with much older students so it's a steep learning curve to say the least.
    I was having quite a down day until I found this, so thank you!

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