When I was working as a homeschool consultant in the early 1990s, it was my responsibility to guide families through the homeschooling process while simultaneously raising and teaching children with their own exceptional needs (learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional or behavioral disorders). The responsibilities ranged from pre and post-assessments, curriculum development and selection, and special training for parents in teaching strategies and curriculum. I loved this job, working with parents and children to achieve a balanced life that included education.
One day, I received a call from a mom asking for help with teaching her five-year-old son with autism. John* had recently been diagnosed, and Mary* was determined to homeschool him along with her two other children. She had even quit her job as a pediatric nurse. Understandably, she had no idea where to begin. I could feel the stress in her voice as she related her journey up to this point and told me about the struggles she had encountered with school officials, medical professionals, and family. This was midyear, and she had just withdrawn her son from a very unsuccessful kindergarten experience. We set an appointment for an academic evaluation in her home and I began my research.
Of course I was hesitant and nervous to accept this challenge, but my heart went out to Mary, a desperate mom determined to help her child. All my previous knowledge of autism only came from college textbooks and Rain Man; I had never met or taught anyone with autism. I didn’t know how to administer tests, select curriculum, or guide parents in the behavior management techniques I typically taught other families who had students with other learning disorders or behavioral concerns. According to the Center for Disease Control, the estimates for children with autism in the 1990s was approximately 1/500 (1/59 as of 2018), so I dug deep, read everything I could get my hands on, and called expert educators to pick their brains. By the time I met with Mary and John, I was loaded with information and resources and felt confident that I could help with this monumental task.
For our initial meeting, I carried an achievement test and an IQ test with me, both appropriate for a five year old. I hoped to get an estimate of his intellectual ability and determine where to begin his reading and math instruction. As noted in a previous conversation with Mary, the previous evaluator was not able to obtain an IQ score and I quickly discovered why; John could not sit still enough to point to test answers in the booklet. Working with him was a very chaotic experience, but I adapted by following him around with a notepad, asking questions while he played in the playroom, and jotting down observations. I made specific and detailed notes:
- He would not look at me when I spoke to him
- He did not play with toys, but rather lined them up and threw them
- When I asked him a question, I had to repeat it several times before John would answer (sometimes unintelligibly because his verbal skills were minimal)
- Other symptoms he displayed were hand flapping, repeating the same noise continuously, running and circling the furniture, and angry emotional outbursts.
John’s intelligence seemed to be significantly below average. He displayed almost zero language and pre-reading skills. Concurrently, he exhibited an obsession for numbers, so much so that he called them out randomly and incessantly. In years to come, he would memorize dates of birthdays, events, and significant historical timelines and frequently share them with everyone he encountered, whether in an appropriate setting or not.
As dysfunctional as all of this may sound, John’s story is really one of hope, achievement, and inspiration. I worked with this family for over a decade and was able to watch and document incredible growth for John in all areas of his life. Eventually, John attended a small private college on a tennis scholarship despite his continued struggle with language skills (such as vocabulary, idioms and abstract language). I suspect that if he were to be evaluated again at this age, he would not be diagnosed with autism but probably with something less serious like receptive language disorder. John’s full life and bright future are the result of parents that never gave up on their son. Mary and her husband provided John with an intensive, individualized education, and sought out both medical and alternative treatments. John overcame great obstacles to become the productive young man he is today.
The most valuable lessons I learned from this first introduction to autism are:
- 1) Each child with autism is a unique individual and has varying academic, social, and behavioral needs;
- 2) Low expectations produce low results – setting the learning bar high (but with achievable goals) is critical to every student’s success (children with autism are no exception);
- 3) There is no magical cure for autism, but plenty of research based programs, curriculum, and therapies are available and can produce positive results.
Further symptoms, teaching strategies, and resources for autism can be found on the HLA website: characteristics of autism.
*John and Mary are not the real names, but are used here to protect confidentiality.
Welcome to our “First Glance” blog series written by Trudy Abel! Over the next few weeks we will be featuring different Special Needs topics – introducing you to each concept through the lens of Trudy’s initial experiences with various diagnoses.
Trudy Abel holds a M.A.Ed. in Gifted Education and a Ph.D. in Special Education from University of Southern Mississippi. She has taught students of all ages within general, gifted, and special education in public, private and homeschool settings. She has also served as a special education professor in four different universities, recently retiring from University of North Alabama.
She homeschooled her two sons at different points in their education to accommodate their learning differences (dyslexia, ADHD, and giftedness); homeschooled two nieces for a couple of years; and taught history in a homeschool cooperative. Before homeschooling was widely accepted, Trudy opened a consulting business for homeschooling families to provide academic support, testing and accountability. Later, she co-founded a non-profit school for children with dyslexia.
Most of her career has focused on educating future teachers and parents about special needs. Her passion in working with families of children with special needs is to increase understanding, provide support, and equip with needed resources to ensure success.