Friday, April 1, 2011

Autism Awareness. What does that even mean?

April is Autism Awareness Month.

But what does that really mean?

Because, if your life is not affected by kids or adults with autism, are you aware?  Do you need to be aware?  What do you need awareness of?  Are you even interested in being aware?

Instead of quoting the facts from a book or web site (which, if you're reading my blog, you could probably quote word for word anyway), I plan to give some personal autism awareness facts...

1. Kids with autism are lovable.  Daily, I see a little girl with autism who smiles, giggles, and hugs me. Sure, a handful of her hugs are meant to cause "deep pressure," but the other handful, pure affection.  She calls school "Miss Kolis school" to differentiate it from "summer school" or "dance school."  When given the sentence "My best friend is... " she says "Miss Kolis."  She is the most lovable little girl I have ever known.

2. People with autism can communicate.  Just because someone cannot use their vocal chords to speak to you does not mean they don't communicate.  Gestures, facial expressions, body language, and hand movements have never been so powerful!  And the day that one of my students used both a Dynavox Xpress and an iPad to tell me that using the Dynavox Xpress made him "sad' and using the iPad made him "happy," language had never meant so much. (No disrespect to Dynavox, another one of our students loves his Xpress!)

3. People with autism are ALL different.  In the 8 years I have been a special ed. teacher, I have spent nearly 4 years working with students with moderate-intensive special needs.  And in those 4 years, I've worked with 6 kids with autism.  NOT ONE of them is similar.  NOT ONE of them learns the same way.  NOT ONE of them uses the same ways to communicate, nor has the same sensory needs.  EVERY PERSON with autism is so unique.  And we value their individuality every day.

4. People with autism are true to themselves. I have never known a person with autism to feel embarrassed or really to give a hoot what other people think of them. One student with autism loves to eat raw onions.  He doesn't worry about his breath or the fact that other people think its a little unappetizing to see him eat raw red onions.  One of my students with autism needs to see the pictures in the book or the icons on the schedule. And when he can't see, he gets up and gets closer, takes a look, and then returns to his seat.  He helps himself without caring what the others may think.  And, while I understand that we work on social skills and therapies, etc., etc., I admire the sense of self that I believe my students with autism have.

5.  People with autism can learn!  In the four years I've been privileged to work with kids with autism, every single one of them has been able to learn and grow more than I could have ever imagined! And when people ask "Can that kid really learn?"  I can respond with "Yes, he learns. And he's had to learn about 3 times more than the typical kids have.  He's learned what numbers are, how to count with them, and how to add.  He's learned every step to wash his hands when other kids just knew how.  He's learned to control his impulses when a teacher asks him to sit in his chair.  He's learned to read your facial expressions. And he's learned to walk in the hall with his class.  And on top of all that, he's also understanding chapter books and learning to type."  OF COURSE HE LEARNS!

6. Our classroom loves kids with autism AND kids with all types of abilities and disabilities!  Whether it's Autism Awareness Month, World Down Syndrome Day, or the celebration of any diversity, ALL kids are welcome in our classroom.  If you need to stand to do your work, come on in.  If you need to run 8 feet every 20 minutes, come in.  If you need to vocalize in the middle of a picture book being read aloud, come in.  If you like to eat only the chocolate chips out of a chocolate chip cookie, or only eat yogurt at school, or eat only white foods, come in.  If you need to swing in between subject areas, or jump on a trampoline, come in.  If you use an augmentative assistive communication device, you are welcome.  If you like to color the tree purple and black instead of green and brown, we want you.  If you say "5 school" instead of Friday, come in.  If you smile and clap over your head every time you are able to feed yourself with a spoon, big claps to you, come in!  If you can comprehend a chapter book given additional visuals, learn to add using touch points, and love Dora, Clifford, Barney, Mr. Rogers, Piggie and Elephant, Winnie the Pooh, Diego, Word World, Arthur, the Princesses, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Elmo, our room is the place for you.

So, April is Autism Awareness Month.  And in Room 5 at Hilton School, we want you to be aware that, if you don't know and love someone with autism, you are really missing out!