Facilitator of An Innovative & Dynamic Autistic Support Classroom

My classroom aid and I find ourselves laughing with and often at each other. We agree that in Room 435 behaviors are wildly eccentric and enlightening. While giving our students the tools to navigate society, it is important that we can also preserve each student's intricate personality and autonomy by nurturing their strengths, interest and abilities.

Each day, we are able to enjoy the gifts our extraordinary students present. I'd like to share these gifts, hopefully opening a window in the world of students with autism. It is my goal, to let others see that students with cognitive variations have insight and abilities far beyond what many may imagine. Enjoy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Today, it got deep.

I’ve been spending a lot of time, chasing my tail, trying to figure out what my first blog entry should be. I wanted to write something that would ‘show’ and not ‘tell.’  Alas, what happened in class yesterday is the perfect account for what I am trying to share...

Of the six students in my class, five work independently on MacBooks using various digital media software applications to develop portfolio projects such as Comic Strips, Blogs, Music, Wikis, Websites, etc.   We were all seated at a large table in the back of the classroom, assisting each other whenever help was needed.  While proof reading Maj’s blog, I noted the correct way to spell the word, ‘autistic.’  

Upon hearing this word, Jam looked up and said, “Ms. McKeone, I have two cousins that, they's Autistic.”

My immediate thoughts went from considering three cases of autism in one family to being curious about Jam’s interaction with his cousins.   I asked him their names and if he spent a lot of time hanging out with his cousins. 

He replied, “Uh, nah, uhh, I don’t hang out with them.  I hang out with the regular kids.  They is Autistic like Rid and Lam.”

While first preparing to tackle the “regular kids,” remark, it took me a minute to process that Jam seemed to be saying that he did not consider himself a student with Autism.   In fact, he only considered two of the six students in our classroom to be what he thought to be Autistic.  

I asked him what ‘regular kids’ meant.  At this point, Maj chimed in to offer his understanding.  

“My dad, my dad says, he says that Autistic kids is when, you, you, you think different and and and you, uh, think different and you learn different.” 

I told Maj that his dad was right and that thinking and learning different made each of them unique (a vocabulary word on our word wall).  He continued excitedly to express what he knew.

“It, it, it mean that you are a child, like 2 years old, and and and you can’t speak. That, that, that mean that you Autistic.”   

I felt this might be a good segue to explained that everyone learns and develops at an individual pace throughout life.  I pointed out that the other classrooms (which some of my students attend) often have more students in them because that is conducive to their learning style.   Like the students in these classes, I explained that all individuals, including myself, have both strengths and weaknesses.  Each of us has a gift that we bring to the classroom and we all have things we need to work on.  After this explanation, we went around the table indicating the unique gifts that they each bring to the classroom.  This was our collective conclusion:

"Qom is always willing to be a friend and have a conversation.  Maj writes great stories.  Vit is an amazing performer.   Rid has a lot of personality and likes to help.  Jam is a talented rapper and producer.  Lam is caring and gangsta."

I also emphasized that as an Autistic Support classroom, we (myself, Mrs. E. & and Mr. T.) are all here to not only support them in developing their unique gifts, but also to help develop strategies to overcome struggles.

Maj thought about what I said and then said, “Ms. McKeone, I have a question.  Do that mean that, that because we in an Autistic Support classroom, do that mean that you, Mrs. E and Mr. T are, do, do that mean you are not Autistic?” 

I explained to Maj that we are not considered to be people who have Autism, but that we are here to support each of them in achieving their goals. 

Then again, Jam expressed more of his thoughts on the matter. 

“I used to have a TSS (Therapeutic Support Staff) worker, because uhm, Mr. Line, my teacher told me to do my work.  I said, ‘No.’  I was 12.  When I was 13th years old, in the seventh grade, I didn't know how to uhm, do my work, stay on task...My teacher told me to get busy."

Jam went on to reflect on many of his educational experiences growing up, as he does often in the classroom. 

Qom, who was surprisingly quiet, finally told us how he came to the Autistic Support classroom.

“I used to be in a Learning Support classroom, but I was too much trouble so they put me in Autistic Support.”

I immediately let Qom know that I didn’t think he was trouble at all.  I thought he was a great student with a wonderful personality.

Four of the five students excitedly express something they felt was relevant to the conversation.  

As I reflected on this powerful moment, I remembered how it all started. The story Maj wrote, where he used and misspelled the word Autism, was about getting on the bus filled with other students with Autism.  In his writing, it seemed that Maj was trying to express that he would rather not ride on the bus with them.  

Everyday, there is a behavior, comment or other implicit suggestion illustrating that my students have in some way internalized what it means to be a person with Autism. Although they have not yet established a firm understanding, at the very least, they have determined that it means they are different.

As it is my role is to develop strategies to navigate these struggles, I look to present a project-based learning assignment that deals with the meaning of being a person with Autism. However, how I should begin to shape this on-going process of empowerment, I don't know.  I do know, that this progression will be an integral part of developing their sense of autonomy. 

One extremely gifted student, Vit, who struggles with his own set of social issues, seemed to read the theme well. 

"Autistic's like regular.  It's like, everybody in here is regular.  You are, you are, he is, he is."