I cannot even tell you how happy I am to have Leigh from flappiness is... with us today! She is a school media specialist and mother of a 4 year old neurotypical daughter and a 2 year old son who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Leigh was kind enough to participate in an impromptu interview, and I think you will agree, she has some great stuff to share.
After my interview with her, you will have the chance to read her post, “An Apology From Your Child’s Former Teacher.” In her post she describes being a teacher, who despite her best efforts just didn’t “get it” when it came to her special needs students. Now, as a parent of a special needs child, she finally understands. I guarantee your heart will be touched by her words.
Please be sure to catch up with Leigh on her Facebook page, Twitter, and her blog. You’ll be glad you did!
CAM: During your teaching career so far have you seen an increase in the classroom in recent years? What kind of impact does that have on you and the class?
Leigh: I’ve seen huge increases in the grocery store – let alone the classroom! This is my fourteenth year of teaching (and two years of substitute teaching prior). I knew about autism when I started, as I have two first cousins with autism. However, I had not even met a diagnosed student until nine years ago. And, since that year, there hasn’t been a single year that I haven’t worked with them – though their range in severity and ability has differed drastically.
My experience with autistic students didn’t begin until I left the full-time classroom and became a school library media specialist. I’m certain that any autism parents who are also media specialists and nodding and smiling right now. They know. Spectrum kids have a magnetic attraction to the school library. It’s quiet. Everything is in its place. The librarian knows you only in a positive capacity – with no knowledge of late homework, refusal to participate in P.E., social difficulties, etc. And it’s safe. They often ask if they can help out, and – darned if they don’t make the best junior librarians! With that attention to detail, they can find a needle (or a missing book) in a haystack. It’s actually a great career for spectrum folks. Though I do find some of them to be somewhat intolerant of my willingness to let overdue books slide. Rules are rules, you know, with these kids!Although I am no longer in the classroom full-time, I have taught a reading class for the past three years as well as a couple of language arts classes here and there. I have taught some of these kids in those groups as well – though all of them have been on high-functioning end of the spectrum. I find that, in the classroom, they can be a bit distracting for a little while. Unlike other academically talented students, they are often not the least bit shy answering questions. This, of course, attracts some negative attention in the class – as being smart and eager can be polarizing. Usually, the kids adjust and eventually stop reacting. I don’t tolerate bullying and teasing in my class, so I don’t see a lot of it. I am not so dim, however, that I am not fully aware it is happening as soon as they leave. Every one of these kids reports being teased. At our school, we don’t tolerate it. Our administration is excellent about seeking out the culprits and being proactive. But they don’t always tell – which makes me sad, as I’m thinking that perhaps they simply become accustomed to it.
As far as an impact on me personally, teaching ASD kids has been a good thing. Because my cousins are unlikely to be wholly self-sufficient in adulthood, I previously had a very bleak association with the concept. Yes, I knew about Temple Grandin and other successful spectrum folks. But knowing about them theoretically and having personal experience are two different things. I now no longer feel hopeless when I hear the word autism. When I’m told that we will have students on the spectrum, I am now just eager to seek them out and meet them. With a library aide application in my back pocket, quite naturally! ;)CAM: Do you think that being a teacher helped you in some way as you began walking the autism road with your son?
Leigh: Emotionally, I think it has made it harder. I know all too well what he is facing. Middle school is hard enough, even without being ASD. It can be pure hell if you are.In terms of having an idea what direction to go in, yes, being a teacher has helped. I am fortunate to have professional contacts to go to for advice and am probably a bit more aware of what help is available. As far as teaching my son? I’m really in the same boat as anyone else. As a middle school language arts teacher, I have no background in elementary or special education. I’m hoping that my teaching skills will come in handy as he gets a bit older – or if he ends up being better served by homeschooling --which I think is always an option worth exploring with older ASD kids.
CAM: Can you share a little bit about the first moment when the question of autism or special needs was raised in your mind?Leigh: My NT daughter was born screaming at the world. (She’s a high-maintenance little being.) Bronwyn was demanding from the beginning. But when Callum was born, he was so different. At the time, I wasn’t suspicious. We just kept telling everyone what a mellow little guy he was. He didn’t even cry when born – just looked right at me. For the whole first year, we joked about how content and unmotivated he was. He was the smiliest, happiest, chubby little guy – always grinning and very cuddly. But he didn’t sit or crawl quite as early as other babies. Actually, he didn’t crawl at all – he “knee walked” everywhere (yeah, I know). He has always babbled, so I wasn’t worried about speech early on. And I tried not to stress out about him not walking until 16 months. That happens, and it is often no big deal. Every child is different and all that. Around that time I was noticing that we might need to have his hearing evaluated and had made an appointment to do so. But he had already had two sets of ear tubes, and I was much more suspicious about hearing loss.
Until that day when I was watching him bouncing up and down in front of Yo Gabba Gabba. (Yes, I’m one of those awful mothers who lets him watch a little TV.) And, as I was watching, he lifted his little arms and began flapping. And, I KNEW. I mean KNEW. Any of those things in isolation are no big deal. But when you combine delays, suspicion of hearing loss, family history, and flapping? Oh, yeah. I’ve described it previously as that moment when the Theme to Jaws began playing in my mind. Everything in my peripheral vision went hazy and all I saw and heard was that flapping. No one – and I mean NO ONE- was agreeing with me at the time. But a mother’s intuition is a powerful thing. I spent the next days, weeks, and months obsessively searching the internet, making phone calls, connecting to Early Steps, seeking out a developmental pediatrician and even a DAN doctor. It has been only recently, since people have begun to believe me, that I have been calming down and settling in for the long haul.CAM: What effects do you think your current experience as mom will have on your teaching?
Leigh: On my teaching style? Not so much. I’ve always been open to different ways of learning and processing information. In my experience, most teachers are and need to be. But in being a teacher? Well, I find myself seeking out the “different” kids. I go to guidance and ask for their names at the start of 6th grade. I look for them during library orientation. I try to befriend them early on and let them know that my space is a safe zone for them. Because I know for certain that they will need it. I try to find out what their interests are – no matter how obscure. (I am positive that I have the most comprehensive collection of books on clouds in the western hemisphere, in my quest to satisfy just one such ASD kid.) I ask them for their opinions. And I ask them for their help. I find that they are so often thrilled to show off their talents. I happen to really like most of our ASD students. There is a practicality and an honestly that is so often inherent to them – regardless of their individual personalities. And I try really hard to say something good or funny about them when I see their frazzled parents. They need it.
Now, here is Leigh’s amazing post. I know you will love it as much as I do.
Dear Parents of Special-Needs Children I’ve Taught In the Past,
I need to make a big apology. You see, I’ve been teaching now for fourteen years, but I have only just recently joined your ranks.
I didn’t know. Not even a clue. I thought, mistakenly, that having two special-needs children in my family made me more sensitive to your needs as a parent. It didn’t. And I’m so sorry for operating under the assumption that I did. I’m not attempting verbal self-flagellation here. I meant well. I knew a lot about autism and some about other special-needs conditions. I did care about your child. And I did want to do right by him. But, like a lot of teachers who Just Don’t Get It, I thought doing right by him meant giving him extra time on assignments and not allowing him to fail my class. I thought being extra nice and seating her at the front of the room was what you needed from me.
But you needed more. And I didn’t understand that. You needed communication. A lot of it. You needed me to understand your depth of worry. You needed me to understand that, if you’ve met one special-needs child, you’ve met one special-needs child. You needed me to understand that I was teaching your child, not an I.E.P. You needed to know, not assume, that I would go out on a limb to make sure your child’s needs were met all over the school and not just in my classroom. You needed to not worry that, when your back was turned, I was still doing everything that I promised as well as thinking of better ways to meet your child’s needs. You needed to talk about your child in meetings and not worry about the clock.
I know better now. In just a few months, I am going to be placing my special little boy into the hands of the public school system. Because he is non-verbal, I will have no way of literally knowing how his day went, if he is being treated well, and if those to whom I am entrusting his care really do care about him. This kind of fear is paralyzing. And more so because I know just how little training (read almost none) that most of the staff in a public school have in dealing with children like my son. They, too, will mean well. But they won’t know. They won’t get it. I now know why you carry The Binder of Epic Proportions to every meeting. Mine is getting bigger by the day.
I look back now at all of your children and wish that I had picked up the phone more, written quick notes home more often, challenged your child more often rather than less, and make you feel certain that someone else loved your baby in your absence. For that, I’m sorry. I promise to do better for those kids in the future. I promise to not assume anything about your child’s unique situation and needs. I won’t just react to bullying of your very different child. I will actively be on the lookout for it. I will remember your child and her possible confusion on activity bell schedule days. I will take more time each day to get to know her. I promise to do my best to push, cajole, educate, and even take to task my colleagues who don’t get it in the years to come. I pray that teacher training will improve in the future and that my son will reap the rewards of that. And I hope that I am just as patient, kind, and understanding with his teachers and schools as most of you were with us.
And those of you who weren’t? I get you too.
Your Child’s Former Teacher