The Golden Girl – Approaching Students with Autism by Entering Their World
I first noticed Carolyn on the playground; a tall, blonde girl running on her toes. When I approached her to say “Hi” she held her hand in front of her face, turned her head to the side and glanced at me through her fingers. She ran away giggling.
After teaching special education for many years I chose to take a few years off after the birth of my son. When I returned to teaching, California was starting its 20:1 class-size reduction and I took a third-grade class at a neighborhood school. Twenty general education children in one grade, all with the same lesson plan seemed amazingly simple after years of individualized instruction, school psychologists and paperwork. But….special education was calling me back. I wanted to teach Carolyn.
With the shortage of teachers with special education credentials (the class was currently being taught by substitutes), the district was happy to offer me the job.
Carolyn had been in a county program for her first years of schooling. She spent much of her time rocking, hands over her ears, and screaming. Yet she would amaze her teachers by occasionally writing her name. My principal wanted to try her in my class.
My approach to teaching has always been one of kindness. The children must be comfortable and feel safe before they can begin to learn. So when Carolyn came into the room and crawled under a table, I understood she needed to find a safe vantage point to view her new teacher, new classmates, new year. I continued to teach the rest of the class and would catch her glancing at us through her fingers.
I placed pillows in the back of the room and a basket of stuffed animals. Carolyn made herself comfortable, still observing. I would occasionally crawl in with her and ‘play’ with the animals.
Carolyn now loved her stuffed animals and was feeling comfortable, however she still wasn’t participating in class activities. I put a white board, a beanbag chair, books and, of course, her animals in the back of the room, moving the table. I told her this was her office. She giggled and said, “My office.”
She began watching what I was teaching and would then ‘teach’ her animals. She was talking to her animals! She would wander over to my desk and try to look at my lesson plans and grade books. Soon she had made records of her own, listing the animals as her students – even giving them birthdates and social security numbers. Now I knew she could read, write and speak.
Our school was award-winning and often had visitors. Groups of men and women would walk through the class observing. On one occasion Carolyn was writing on her white board when a group came through. She had made several dashes on the board. As the group walked through, she said in a loud voice, “Would you like to buy a vowel?”
Even though Carolyn was getting comfortable with me and the class she still refused to sit at a desk. Knowing she loved a certain fast-food chain, my para, Wendy Valentine, came up with an idea. Wendy made glittery golden arches and attached them to a chair. We called the chair ‘Chair M’ and asked Carolyn if she would like to sit down. Carolyn giggled and said, “Chair M” as she sat down. It worked! Math became ‘Math M,’ spelling ‘Spelling M,’ and so on. Carolyn would still retreat to her place in the back of the room at times, and that was fine. She was beginning to participate in class activities. At circle time she wouldn’t join the circle but would stand at a distance doing the same activity. At P.E. she would join the ball game, running the bases, screaming and smiling at the same time.
Though she still wouldn’t talk to me except in one-word answers, she would communicate on the computer or on paper. I sat by her side asking her questions and she would write the answer. She loved these times. She also began writing poetry and drawing maps. One of the books I gave her was an atlas. She quickly memorized states, countries, even the rivers in Europe. And…she could spell. I gave her very challenging words each week and she always made 100%. Wendy encouraged me to put her in the school spelling bee.
I wasn’t sure. Would she even sit on the stage? Would she follow the mandatory response sequence; say the word, spell the word, say the word? Would she run out of the auditorium if she missed a word? We began having spelling bees in class. I would line up the chairs and give students words according to their ability. I even had a pretend microphone. She loved it! I entered her in the third-grade spelling bee.
The custodian sat up the stage the day before the Bee. We practiced on the stage. We were ready.
The day of the Bee, I sat below and to the side of the stage holding Siobhan and Lilly (two of Carolyn’s favorite stuffed animals). Carolyn took her place with the other contestants as the room filled with parents. She wasn’t nearly as nervous as her parents, my staff and I. She confidently approached the mic and spelled each word. She was in her element! She won! My staff and I began cheering and crying.
Carolyn won the school Bee four years in a row. In Jr. High I entered her in the County Spelling Bee. As the contestants were eliminated and Carolyn remained, her father leaned over to me and said, “Will you go to Washington with her?”
She placed third. When the reporter attempted to interview her I decided not to mention that Carolyn had autism. The reporter looked at me with a questioning look. I excused us, saying Carolyn was tired. We celebrated with burgers and fries from Carolyn’s favorite place.
Carolyn recently graduated with her AA from a community college.
Wismer graduated from Northeastern University and attended Cal State San Bernardino for graduate work. She taught school, mostly special education, for thirty-five years.
Books by Cindy Stringer Wismer:
Never Push and Never Pull Autism in Children
A Guide for Parents and Teachers Autism in Teens
ADHD in Children Turn To Me
ADHD in Adults Stars in the Sand
Autism in Toddlers The Magic Sands
This article was featured in Issue 28 – Sharing the Love