Monday, April 4, 2011

Autism - My Early Education

I chose special education as a career originally because there was a tempting chunk of financial aid available. The University was in the process of starting its first program to train teachers of the "mentally retarded" and I thought it might be worth a try. I had been going back and forth between a major in psychology (which I loved) and elementary education (which - as I had heard from just about everyone - would give me job security for the rest of my life). I was in my junior year and running out of money. Maybe, just maybe, this would work.

As it turned out, I truly enjoyed all my classes in special education and found myself saying, many years later, that "I really wouldn't need to get paid for what I do!" I loved it that much!

Along the path of my personal education, I was blessed with a variety of experiences and some wonderful mentors. Thinking back to my college courses, I am quite sure the term "autism" was never even introduced. By the time I was hired for my very first teaching job, we were only using two labels for kids placed in special education programs in the public schools: educable mentally retarded (EMR) or trainable (TMR). My first group of eight students probably included one or more who would have been more accurately described as having a learning disability, but I had still had not met a person with autism.

I took a few years off when my own children were young and then drifted into a part-time teaching position at a privately-run residential facility for kids with "infantile autism" or "childhood schizophrenia." Let the real education begin! Those were the days of blaming the parents, and of course especially the mother, so we had little or no contact with family members. We had two main treatment options: medications such as Haldol or Thorazine and behavior modification. I may have been hired as a teacher, but what we provided in the way of "education" was very limited because the kids presented us with such a wide variety of very challenging behaviors. How could we teach them if we couldn't even keep them in the classroom? And what should we teach anyhow? Their needs seemed so great! I found the kids charming and lovable, but felt terribly inadequate as their "teacher." What I didn't realize at the time was how much they were teaching me. I know it now and will be eternally grateful to them for their patience and persistence. I don't think I was a quick study.

That particular experience led me to a job in a segregated school for kids with special educational needs, where they were struggling to figure out how to help a young girl with severe autism - it was a county-wide school and she was the only one in the county with that label and unlike any student this particular school had encountered in its long history.

"Carla" was an excellent teacher. She and I spent the whole day together, including lunch and bathroom visits. She came to me from a temporary placement in a state institution, where I went for further training in the fine art of behavior modification. I also worked closely with her family, watching their interactions and learning from them what worked and what didn't. As an example of the latter, let me describe one of our walks in the hall.

I was taught (by the B-mod folks) to praise Carla for any appropriate behavior she exhibited (i.e. when she wasn't screaming, pinching, pulling my hair or head-butting me), so I might say, "Nice walking, Carla!" as we walked, and Carla would hear me and promptly sit on the floor. Now, because she was no longer doing what I had asked of her, I was to give her a 30-second "time-out." We were in the hall, no chair was available, so the time-out would involve 30 seconds of sitting on the floor (which of course she was already doing - how convenient!) I would then say, "Time out, Carla, no sitting in the hall." Do you see where this is going? I'd give her 30 seconds of sitting (in spite of the incongruity of it all) and then say, "Time out is over, Carla. Stand up." If she did, we could move on - at least until I praised her for walking and the whole process started over again. OR, if she didn't get up, we were headed into yet another time-out sitting there on the floor because she had refused to get up.

So many, many things went right for me as Carla worked patiently to teach me about autism. First, I quickly recognized that something was wrong. Then, I realized that nothing was ever going to go "right" unless Carla and I could come to some sort of truce and develop a relationship. And finally, Carla's family and my bewildered administrators were willing to trust my judgment and let me try to do things another way.

But, as I look back on that particular stage of my learning, I realize I knew very little. I had many glimmers of potential intelligence in Carla, but didn't dare go too far in that direction. After all, there was so little she could actually do and absolutely no consistency in her day-to-day performance levels. I was just starting to hear and read about the many sensory issues connected to autism, but had not yet put that information together enough to consider it as a possible explanation for all the screaming and other "behaviors" we were facing regularly.

What I had learned was significant, however. I knew beyond a doubt that it was wrong to blame Carla's parents in any way - they were very loving and supportive. They deserved our respect, not our blame! And I knew that the techniques of behavior modification were not for me. I was going to have to find a different route, and although I didn't realize it at the time, I would probably have to find it on my own because there really was nothing else out there.

Ah, but I had many wonderful teachers yet to come. I wasn't alone at all!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this rich account of your early years in the field. It brings back memories of my first experiences in the field, when behavioral interventions (mass discrete trials, time out, focus on consequences rather than preventive supports, etc., etc.) were all that were taught to us staff in the local training center (institution). I had similar experiences to yours with good teachers who had labels of severe or profound disability, who began and furthered my understanding that relationships are more powerful, and that appearances and actions are not representative of inner knowledge, thoughts, and feelings. I have been blessed with many subsequent teachers, most of whom did not speak, several of whom learned to type to communicate--something I never imagined back in those early years. It is sad to think of the lost time and missed opportunities for communication going back through the years. At least we know more now, we have better approaches, and we move forward continuing our learning with patient teachers. Thanks for keeping your blog going, Char!