I wrote this post last week and scheduled it out not even realizing today would be National Autism Awareness Day. Coincidence? I think not. I think it’s perfectly fitting. It’s only Wednesday but I’ve already had an emotionally draining week. My 13 loves that I spend my day with have so many obstacles to overcome – each and every day. Breaks my heart. It gives me some much needed hope and a little uplift to know that there are so many people striving to make the world a more understanding, empathetic, and loving place for my guys. Autism Awareness is about spreading the good. Sharing the little victories, the personalities, and the smiles. It’s also about sharing the hard moments, the obstacles, and sometimes the tears (yep – I had some yesterday). And raise awareness. Although it seems like most people know about autism – not everyone does. And not everyone understands.
I’d like to take a few moments to step back from classroom photos, tutorials, and curriculum ideas and share a much more important revelation I came to recently. This is much longer than I meant this to be but I realized I had a lot that I wanted to share. Now, we all know we play an important role in the lives of our students. As a special ed teacher, we often teach much more than academics. We teach our students who to communicate their wants and needs, how to make sense of what can be at times – a completely overwhelming world, and how to function independently – even if only for a few minutes. But even beyond those critical and essential life skills – our impact can go even farther. We truly can improve the overall quality of life that our students have. Not to sounds completely sappy and sentimental – but our impact can be life changing.
Let me rewind a bit for you. About five years ago, I had a new student age up to my classroom from within my building. His reputation preceded him. He was large and in charge. Name a behavior and he had it. Noncompliance, aggression, swearing, running, and the ever popular – taking off clothes. To say I was intimated is a massive understatement. I was vaguely terrified. We had a beautiful two week honeymoon phase where I saw all of the real potential and intelligence this child had. And then the fun started. Honeymoon was over and he was back to his behavioral bag of tricks. I’m not going to pretend his transformation was easy. It wasn’t. He gave me a major run for my money. But during his first year in my class, we realized how much this boy loved to be challenged, how much he needed communication training, and that creating a positive and reinforcing classroom environment was like pure gold. By the end of his first year, we had eliminated most of his behaviors.
I became close with this student’s family during this time. His guardian was his very elderly great grandmother. His mom was in and out of his life and he made it very clear (even with him limited verbal skills) that he did not care for her. His grandma was the sweetest woman I’ve ever met and loved that boy to death. But you could see the strain taking care of a teenager with autism had on her.
Years went by and this once intimidating boy developed into a sweet as pie young adult. He loved to work, was reading on a 1st grade level, and no longer used his dyavox because his verbal skills were so much stronger. Honestly – I often forgot about the punk he use to be. His grandma’s health worsened and worsened with each home visit I took. He had an aunt who lived a few doors down and I always assumed she would at some point take guardianship if anything ever happened. He also had a young, college aged sister who he adored.
Two years ago, this boy graduated and I sobbed like a baby. My big guy had grown up and was off to the big leagues. I felt confident that he would retain everything he had learned over his years with me. Last month, I saw this students at a local event and got the chance to spend some time talking to his teachers. They actually laughed when I mentioned this student’s behavior history. They couldn’t even imagine him being aggressive. I wish I had known that 5 years ago when I was getting a bookshelf hurtled at my face.
I learned his grandma had passed away and that guardianship had been taken by his sister. I was surprised since I had always assumed the aunt would take guardianship. The high school teachers said the sister had become so close with him and said that he was so easy to take care of that she was happy to become his guardian.
When I worked with this student, I knew that teaching communication and life skills was important. I knew reducing problem behavior was important. I knew making him more independent was important. But at the time – I did not realize how important it really was. He now has a secure and stable home. I have to wonder if his sister could have so easily taken guardianship had he still had those big, bad behaviors I once knew him to have. Would a 24 year old so readily taken guardianship of a teenager with autism had those behaviors been at play? Luckily – we will never have to know. I kept thinking about how our work can have a much bigger impact than we can even see. And the impact can come years down the road.
There were many, many moments where I wanted give up with this child and was completely clueless on what to do next. I might not have complained or whined or cried so much had I known what a long term and meaningful impact our hard work would have with this boy. Like I said – as teachers, our work can be life changing.
If you made it to the end of the is never ending post – thank you. Thank you for hearing my story and I’d love to hear yours. As a thank you for all you do within the autism community and to honor Autism Awareness Day – my entire store with be on sale today and tomorrow 🙂 Share the love!