My Autism Story

August 6, 2013

Submitted by Meredith Walling

My Autism Story is a story of love and hate, of acceptance and inspiration, and of hard work and sacrifice. I am a teacher of exceptional students, at this point, exclusively students with autism. From my earliest days, I vowed to become a teacher. I began volunteering to work with struggling students in about 2nd grade. My first memory of autism is reading my mother’s textbooks as she completed her coursework for her PhD in Special Education. I was about 10 at the time, but I was following in her footsteps already as someone who was passionate about teaching diverse learners. I took every opportunity in high school to learn through experience in classrooms that catered to students with high levels of need. I majored in elementary and special education in college and substituted frequently.

Even with my background, going into my first year of teaching, I was not prepared for the realities of a full time position with students with significant challenges. I chose to take the most difficult position offered to me because I felt that I was called to do so. I spent my first year in a daze, working my hardest and taking each day and situation as they came. I fell deeply in love with my students despite the fact that many found them difficult to connect with. For my first four years of teaching, I had a classroom of elementary students who were all nonverbal and most were not toilet trained. Their cognitive abilities ranged from a 6 month functioning level to approximately Pre-Kindergarten skills. Most had violent outburst and were constantly getting into dangerous situations. They often resisted any attempts of mine to teach them concepts and almost always ignored my presence. I, however, hardly noticed these things. They were my students, my mission, my passion, and I would do anything in my power to help them progress (and try to have fun while doing so). I pursued every training opportunity put before me and soaked up strategies and ideas like a sponge. I got better and better every year and my students improved as well. I had students go from absolutely no spoken words to a vocabulary of 250 words formed into short sentences. I had students who had severe behavioral problems, reduced to minor occurances. I had students who took years to notice me, calling me by (an approximation of) my name and engaging in appropriate social interactions. I had joy every day in my work and these students were more than just that in my eyes.

[quote float=”right”]I see autism more as a way of processing the world.[/quote]After four years though, I felt that these specific students, that I had worked so long and hard with, needed a fresh face, someone with a new perspective and new strategies. I began to look for a new position and was lead to my current job. In my first school, I had some students with autism and some with other severe impairments. In my next school, I had a class of students exclusively with autism, covering a huge range of abilities and challenges. When I made the transition to my new school, it was like I was back almost to square one. I felt like I knew almost everything, and these students put me in my place. I began to say, “If you know one student with autism, you know ONE student with autism.” There are some similarities, but so many more differences between each and every student. I began to disaggregate the characteristics and form for myself a perspective on autism. I, as a teacher, am responsible for their academic needs and meeting any other challenges that come our way during the school day. At times, I have felt that I run 10 different classrooms simultaneously for the 10 different students that I have in my class. I differentiate instruction, environment, behavioral strategies, sensory strategies, reinforcement systems, the list goes on. I work myself to the point of exhaustion every day because I feel that they deserve nothing less. I have spent countless hours fostering relationships with the parents, families, and outside therapists, of my students to gain trust, understanding, and a common goal.

I have learned so much from each one of my students and all of the extremely talented individuals that I have the pleasure to work with. I feel like every day, I am still learning and improving in my teaching and in my humanity. I have learned to notice and appreciate the small things from my students, like the smells that we encounter daily or the fascinating world of the grocery store. I have learned to look at motivation and internal vs. external forces differently. I have been challenged to create lessons on a higher complexity level than I ever imagined. I have learned about the emergence of language and communication needs. I have become so invested all over again in the lives of my students and their families. I know that the people that I work with and the families of the children that I have the pleasure to teach know where my passion and drive lies. When I say that my “relationship with autism” is one of love and hate it is because at one point I hated autism. I hated it for imprisoning the individuals that I loved so much and dooming then to a life without hope. I have a very different perspective now. I see autism more as a way of processing the world. I strive to make the world understandable and productive for my students and equip them with the internal skills to do the same for themselves. I know that my students will grow up and have a variety of outcomes, but all filled with growth, discovery, and love. I hope to always be able to touch the lives of exceptional students and to look back on my life someday and know that “my life’s work” was meaningful and appreciated. I believe I will.

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