Special Ed Is My Norm

April 2nd marks Autism Awareness Day, and is an especially great day for ASD teachers as it allows us to break our focus from the few children that we have focused our entire year on and ‘spread the wealth’ of acceptance to the rest of the world.

In honour of the day when we recognize those with ASD and their journeys, I would like to share my personal story of becoming an ASD teacher. My story doesn’t involve the typical route to becoming an educator that I only imagine many of my colleagues experienced: reading to stuffed animals lined up in a row, practicing perfect handwriting, being day camp veterens. Being an educator was something I dreamed up after my final year at university, and I sent in my applications to teacher’s colleges amidst some opposite-ended submissions to graduate programs in public relations and journalism. I went, I studied to be a generalist Primary/Junior teacher and I joined the workforce shortly after with a year of being an Educational Assistant leading the way to a career of teaching students with ASD.

I always chuckle when I complete a job application and I need to quantify my skills in ‘years of experience’ – 0-2 years, 3-5 years, 8+ years, etc. Not many people my age would attest to having 25-years of Special Education experience, but around that time was when my younger brother was diagnosed. I wasn’t just an older sister growing up – I was a babysitter, a behaviour therapist, a parent and an educator. I created Boardmaker schedules for his morning routines, visual sequences for how to turn on the VCR, I went with him to SLP appointments as his “peer”, looked at his IEP’s and Safety Plans and most importantly read his home-school communication book everyday. This was the most fascinating to me. My brother’s day involved academics I had no idea he was capable of, social opportunities with peers I didn’t know he had, mixed in with the behaviours I knew all too well. I was curious, what type of student was he? Did his teachers think he was as irritating as I sometimes (often) did? What did the regular kids think of him?

I never made the decision to become a Special Education teacher because I want to make school a better place for kids like my brother; I made the decision because I realized that Special Ed was my norm.

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People who know me will ask “did you go into Special Ed because of your brother?” and I don’t know what to say. It would be a really easy answer to say yes, but I don’t think I’d believe it. I felt I had a lot of talents: writing, music, sports – but those came with a lot of practice and hard work. Special Education required a couple of additional qualification courses, but my nature was already well versed in it. It was comforting, and it came naturally to me the way nothing else really did. So, I did it and I never looked back. The hand flapping, the jumping up and down, the screaming, the vocalizations, the communication that didn’t sound like words and yet I was fluent in – this form of chaos was something that had been a part of my life forever, and yet I still barely notice it until someone points it out by saying “I could NEVER do what you do.” When I hear this it makes me take a step back and think, well, what do I do? I create and implement a curriculum just like any other teacher, I deliver behaviour strategies and deliver consequences just like any other teacher and I assess and evaluate my students based on individual goals just like any other teacher. And yet, we are worlds apart.

Here is why I do what I do:

  • Successes are bigger than HUGE: When a student “gets it” and independently uses their communication device for the first time, or says hi to another peer without being prompted, it makes your week.
  • Your brain doesn’t stop: You are constantly problem solving, increasing and decreasing expectations from one second to the next and coming up with the next target goal all at the same time. You think of time in 2 ways: what will your student be able to do a year from now and what will they be able to do a decade from now.
  • Your hard work is reflected in the data: The data you take is cold, hard proof that the work you put into creating and implementing programs is working. It is the simplest and clearest way to know that you (and your students) are on track.
  • You move: You develop cat-like reflexes and are constantly taking movement breaks with your students (or chasing them depending on the day).
  • You have a built in support system: You work as a team of professionals who know your students the best and who are dedicated to their success.
  • Your learning is never done: Every year I have a new student who challenges me. Please don’t take this post to mean I have learned everything I need to know from my own experiences. My classroom changes every year, I am constantly revamping and improving upon my own teaching strategies and techniques and I rely heavily on a very influential network of Special Education teachers who I have learned and collaborated with over the years.

My brother isn’t the reason I’m the teacher I am today, but somehow he equipped me to be the teacher I am today. Whether you are a student, a parent, a sibling, a Special Education teacher or a mainstream teacher, I hope you find time on April 2nd to reflect on the great work you are doing and passing along to those around you. ‘Make Special Ed your norm’, and I know you will set an example to future leaders and innovators who will be the ones to carry the message of awareness and acceptance foward.

Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

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