By Sarah O’Leary, MS in Ed, Adjunct Faculty, Social and Behavioral Sciences Programs
As I near the end of my tenth year working as a special education teacher it occurs to me how much the perception of autism has changed. I began my teaching career as a preschool special education (SPED) teacher at a public elementary school. As a preschool SPED teacher, I had a cross categorical class but always had students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For the past 7 years I have taught a self-contained autism class of third through fifth grade students. Thinking back to my first year in 2003, while other teachers and students were aware of children with special needs, autism was not a common word. Skipping ahead to 2013, autism is a very common word and most teachers and students know someone with ASD and are very interested in learning about my students.
The students I teach are primarily served in my classroom but do go out for music, PE, and art. Each year I talk to the general education classes about my kiddos and some characteristics my students may have that the general education children may have questions about. In the past 10 years the questions and comments from the general education teachers and students have drastically changed. Back in my first years of teaching, I did not get many questions or comments about students with autism. Primarily others asked about behaviors, such as why my students did not speak or why they made different noises. Jumping ahead to 2013, the students and teachers of today have many questions and always want to share an experience they have had with someone with autism. The questions that students and teachers ask now are much more in depth as compared to the basic “Why don’t they talk?” Today’s audience is eager to meet my students and get to know them. Ten years ago when sharing in a general education class about ASD, I would be in and out in 5 minutes sessions. Now, however, I share and engage in informative dialogues for 15-20 minute sessions. The students are now telling me more about their autistic friends, their siblings with autism, or how they have sometimes worked in the community to help children with autism.
I like to believe this newfound interest that society has gained in learning about autism is all positive. Unfortunately, sometimes the media may portray negative reports about our field. Autism is such a complex disorder and relatively new. There is still much we have to learn about autism and the cause of the disorder. Although we do know of many potential etiologies, we have not yet found a definitive reason for the disorder. With that being said, we do have many researchers and even celebrities jumping to conclusions about the cause which can in turn have a negative impact on what society thinks of children with autism. I have heard of many new interventions being advertised and even some medical procedures offered for children with ASD (some of which can be quite risky). With all these new trends as interventions, I can’t help but think they may be giving parents and families false hope. While the interest in ASD has greatly increased, so have the businesses offering interventions and sometimes even cures. As an educator working in the field, the students who have made the most progress over time are the ones who received early intervention services.
In closing, having worked with the autism population in the public school system for 10 years I have seen many changes. I have witnessed changes in how our students are viewed by society, changes in the interest in getting to know children with ASD, and changes in interventions being used. Like anything, change is typically scary at first but in the long run is usually beneficial. That is how I feel about teaching students with autism in the public school system. As new programs and interventions are developed it is important to ensure they are approached with caution. We must first ensure they are evidence based practices, then embrace them with an open mind, and lastly implement them with our students. All in all, as educators working with children with autism we must embrace change every day.