According to a California Health and Human Service Agency survey of developmental disabilities conducted in 2003, Autism is the single fastest growing developmental disorder, with a 1,148% growth rate. (Source). As April is Autism Awareness Month, and author RJ Scott has a very personal passion for the subject of Autism Awareness, she invited authors, publishers, and bloggers to join in on a hop to shed a little light on the various spectrums and symptoms of the disorder, as well as to celebrate the unique and diverse challenges of those who are afflicted.
Other than a child with ADHD (who provides hours of fun when he doesn’t get his meds!), I’ve been very blessed to have three otherwise healthy children. The reason I wanted to participate in this hop, however, is to have the opportunity to talk with my daughter, Rachel, who is eighteen-years-old and will begin her college career in the fall, majoring in psychology with a focus toward a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, specifically in working with special needs children.
For the entirety of her high school career, she participated in peer tutoring and the Best Buddies program, which is where she discovered a passion for mentoring “her kids”, and even though she graduated in December, she still goes to volunteer in the classroom when work permits. Am I a proud mom? Why, yes, yes, I am, and this is why I elected to interview my baby girl about her work with the Autistic children in her class. I hope you can sense the love she has for her kids and for the work she does.
THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED
Mom: Tell me about your Autistic students. How many of them are there in your class, and how do they differ on the Autism spectrum in terms of communication and interaction?
Rachel: There are three Autistic students in my peer tutoring class. They are all unique in their own way. Zach, who is the youngest, is the most severe in terms of interaction. He won’t look you in the eyes, does not like to be touched, and sometimes has a hard time making conversation. If you get him talking about something that he’s interested in, then he can carry on a very good conversation.
Nick, on the other hand, is quite a talker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a good communicator. He loves talking to people but has difficulty listening to what others have to say to him. A lot of the time, he’s basically carrying on a conversation with himself!
Finally, there’s Matt. Matt is 20-years-old but remains at the high school level. He is like Zach in that he does not like any eye contact or touching of any kind. And now that I think about it, I have to say he is even more difficult to communicate with than Zach. Matt gets very frustrated easily, especially when being told what to do. A few minutes in a quiet room will usually do the trick when he gets too overwhelmed.
Mom: What are some of the outward signs of their Autism?
Rachel: They each have things that make it easy to tell that they are Autistic. All of them avoid eye contact, and don’t particularly like to be touched. They all have little tics of movements that they cannot seem to control. For example, Zach randomly throws his hands behind his head and squeals.
Mom: Do you interact and communicate with each of your Autistic students in different ways? Do you find you have to customize your interaction with each of them individually in order to succeed in reaching them?
Rachel: Absolutely. With Zach, I have to stay a comfortable distance away and speak very clearly and calmly. In order to communicate with Zach well, I have to find ways to get his attention by talking about things he enjoys, like reading.
Matt is sometimes very difficult to interact with. But again, I have to give him his space and speak calmly. It is important to make him feel as calm as possible to avoid an outburst.
With Nick, I just have to be a very good listener and not get too frustrated when he cuts me off or won’t listen to me. He just needs reminded every once in a while that he needs to focus on what I am saying.
Mom: What are some of the specialized learning projects you use to help them with their schoolwork?
Rachel: We do a lot of interactive activities. For example, we will have them talk to someone new each day about what we did the day before, or what we will do the next weekend. This helps them practice their communication skills. We once did an exercise where we each had a partner standing a few feet in front of us, and one partner would begin walking towards the other. When the partner got as close as the other partner was comfortable with, the other partner would put their hand up to tell them to stop. This was to teach them how everyone needs personal space, and some need more than others. We also take walks around the school every day just so that the kids can decompress a bit.
Mom: Have you ever witnessed any incidents where your Autistic students were being teased/bullied, or are the students in your school much more evolved than that?
Rachel: I am pleased to say that I have never seen any of the kids being teased or bullied. The kids at FHS are so kind to them.
Mom: How does your school work to integrate your students into the rest of the student body? Do they get special jobs and assignments to help them feel a sense of responsibility?
Rachel: Best Buddies is a club where students get to do fun activities and outings with the special needs kids. It is amazing the amount of joy that club brings to the kids. They all have responsibilities throughout the school day. They collect recycling, dust lockers, help in the cafeteria, or deliver mail for teachers.
Mom: If you could sum up in a few sentences what makes you love your Autistic students, what would you say?
Rachel: It is hard to sum it up in just a few sentences, because I love them all for different reasons. But the one reason that I love all of them is for how genuine they are. With them, what you see is what you get. They all have such kind hearts. Their innocence and genuine personalities make them impossible not to love.