My first encounter with autism was when I was a Special Education student. From the very first year of studies, my classmates and I worked with children on the autistic spectrum and accompanied some children with severe autism at school. At the start of my second year, I had to choose a place for work experience.
I remember the day our head of department came to shows us the list of options. The autistic school was not on the list, so I asked about it – not because I wanted to work there, but because I was afraid of it.
You see, my philosophy was to choose all the things I was afraid of. I figured that it was the best time to challenge myself and get over my fears. This is why I chose to specialize in Math and this is why I asked about the autistic school.
The head of the department explained to all of us that they didn’t offer work experience at the autistic school because we were not ready for it. She said people did this type of work after they graduated.
I realized that I wasn’t the only one scared of working with autistic children and even my teachers and mentors thought it was hard and scary. This made me want to do it even more. So, although the autistic school was not on the list, this is what I wrote on my preference list for work experience:
- The autistic school
- The autistic school
- The autistic school
So, they figured I was serious about it and one of our mentors, who was a bigshot at the autistic school, came to talk to me. When she heard the reason I so wanted to work there was because I was scared, she approved 6 months of work experience for me at the autistic school under her supervision.
Trauma at the School for Autistic Children
I remember the first day I went there. It is funny that I remember it now, because when I left there, on the first day, I didn’t remember a thing. Only three days later, I told Gal I suddenly remembered I had been there.
My first day at the school for autistic children was so traumatic for me I thought I had dreamed it. Only three days later, the memory of the visit started coming back to me. It was as if my brain erased it until it found a way to handle it.
It was a school for children with severe autism from age 3 to 18. The first day was a tour of the place. Wow, that was an out-of-this-world experience! Children screaming, hitting, making sounds, moving their hands in front of their eyes and walking without noticing the surface underneath them.
When I went to the playground with one of the groups, the kids looked right through me. I knew what autism was on paper, because my mentor had given me several books and many articles to read as a preparation to the first visit, but none of the reading material prepared me for this.
It was interesting to read that many years ago, mothers of autistic children were blamed for their condition. When the beautiful young children in the kindergarten looked through me, I wanted to cry for all the mothers who were blamed for their child’s autism. Can you imagine the devastation of giving birth to a child that won’t hug you back, or even say your name? When you are surrounded by 200 children with severe autism, you know that it is not caused by their mom’s rejection.
During the six months there, I was assigned to the 3-year-old group. My mentor told me this was the best place to start, because there was a lot of hope there and I needed hope to survive.
You see, special education is a profession of working with children and adults with special needs. It can take a long time to achieve something and you need hope and faith to manage emotionally. Unlike regular education, where the expectation is to teach a skill or give knowledge within 3 weeks, in special education, the timeframe can be 3 months. With autistic children, the timeframe is even longer, so I needed hope.
Taking the Autism Plunge
I did a crash course in sign-language, observed assessments of new students and conducted some of my own (with supervision). Then, I went to the youngest 3-year-old group. They were 8 of the most beautiful children in the world. They looked like angels, but they did not understand a word we said or any sign-language we used.
We were 4 teachers for 8 children and the head teacher was an amazing woman that had a very intense plan for each child, in which every minute was calculated and monitored. The people at the school talked about the head teacher as a magician.
I remember the traumatic thing for me was that I could count less than 100 words spoken in the room by 4 teachers over the course of a day. While in a regular kindergarten we would talk and talk and talk to stimulate the children, those children were not stimulated much verbally.
The head teacher told us that regular children created meaning from hearing the same word in different contexts, but autistic children couldn’t, and we needed to create the meaning and give it to them ready.
I worked with one of the children and had to teach him to count from 1 to 3. I had to be very clear with my words and repeat them slowly, without any connecting words. It was hard because it was totally the opposite to everything I had learned about stimulation.
I understood we needed to assess the child’s reaction to stimulation and to limit it when it created overwhelm. At the autistic school, I learned that autistic children were continually overwhelmed, so I had to minimize stimulation as much as possible.
During the six months at the autistic school, I had a weekly meeting with my mentor. Every week, she said to me she was surprised I’d managed to survive for so long. I didn’t think I had an option, because I’d committed myself and had no doubt I would stay to the end.
Every week, she told me that I can bail out and that lasting so far would already give me enough credit. I told her I didn’t need the credit. I needed to get over a personal fear. She was kind to me and very supportive.
Autism, Overwhelm and Stimulation
At home, and when I met other people, I noticed one day that I touched people all the time and rubbed their backs and arms. At the autistic school, we spent hours rubbing the children’s arms, back and shoulders. It became so automatic for me that I was playing with my nephews and rubbed their backs non-stop. When someone pointed this out to me, I stopped, but started again within 2 minutes without noticing.
In one of the introduction meetings with new parents to the school, our head teacher, the amazing woman at the kindergarten, explained to the parents that although autistic children seemed insensitive to things around them, they were, in fact, over-sensitive. Their awkward behavior was a way to manage the overwhelm and over-stimulation.
This is why they prefer repeated behaviors and repeated constant stimulation. As I was working with “my child angel” (he was so beautiful. I can still see his face in my mind when I think of him), I noticed that when I rubbed his back, he made no noises and was very focused. It was as if focusing on the rubbing allowed him to ignore other stimuli.
It took me about 3 years to stop rubbing kids’ back while I worked with them, although I found that even children who were not autistic could focus better on their activities when their backs were rubbed. Later, when I learned about the power of touch, I understood that for autistic children, the constant, rhythmic stimulation was the key, but for regular children, the touch itself did the magic.
I was very surprised to discover that most of the kids at the school had some form of epilepsy. For some if was Grand Mal and for some it was Petit Mal, which only supported my understanding that autism was a brain malfunction, not an emotional issue.
Emotional Intelligence was my main focus while working with regular children, but I knew it was not applicable to children with autism. Children with autism have a different “mental machine”.
In all my professional career, I made the choice to focus on emotional intelligence and I was convinced I would not encounter autism again after my last day of my work at the autistic school.
Years later, I found out I was wrong.
Perspective on Autism
Throughout the 4 years of my Special Education studies, I did a total of 2 years of work experience (paid and unpaid). Although I loved every second of it, the autistic school was by far the most challenging work experience for me.
Over the 31 years since this first encounter with autism, I worked with children on “the spectrum” and was very sad to discover that all around the world, people labeled children as autistic too easily. When I met those labeled kids, I was very grateful for the experience in the autistic school as a young teacher, scared and without experience, because it gave me a great perspective on what autism was and what autism was not.
Not all children with language issues, or who do not communicate well, are autistic, and giving them a label is not the solution for their problems.
In the past few years, I’ve had a chance to work with more and more children who were on the autistic spectrum. I was recently asked by one of my clients to share this work with my readers, in hope that this would help them take initiative and change their child’s life.
I am starting this series about autism to help every parent who has a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or suspect their child might be showing symptoms of ASD. I want to give you hope that there are many things you can do to change the symptoms (and labeling is not one of them).
If you are a parent of a child with ASD, please share your experience and victories with us in the comment box below. Your wisdom and experience can make a difference to other people’s life.
Come back next week to read about the “Catch 22” of Autism.
This post is part of the series Autism:
- Autism: First Encounter