I owe it all to Andrew!

Me and Andrew in 2002

Well hello! I am Nicole Mays and I teach students with Autism.  Several people have been encouraging me to start a blog about teaching students with Autism, so here I go.  I figure the first post is a good place for an introduction and brief history.

Let's travel back to 2002.  I was a senior in college at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, GA.  I was a music major, with a concentration in clarinet performance.  During school breaks, I substitute taught in my hometown of Winder, GA at Kennedy Elementary School.  One week, a parapro in one of the self contained MOID classes (moderate intellectual disabilities) was out for a week and I was her sub.  There, I met a young man named Andrew.  I instantly fell in love with this boy and was fascinated by him.  He had a disability called Autism - something I vaguely recalled hearing about but wasn't all that familiar with.  Each evening that week, I searched the internet and read all I could about Autism and Fragile X (his diagnosis).  I knew, somehow, that my music degree - that I was about 3 months away from completing - would never be used.

Andrew laugh
Andrew, 2004

My cousin had just graduated with a degree in journalism and gone back for her Master's degree and initial certification in education and was going to start teaching the coming fall.  I called her, got the information about the degree program and began looking into the special education program there.  Things started to fall into place.  I discovered that I could teach on a provisional certificate as long as I was enrolled in a certification program (a very controversial concept, I know - and I'm not sure how I feel about it as a whole, but it certainly worked out for me!).  Andrew's teacher was wanting to transfer to a general education class but the principal was having trouble finding a replacement sped teacher to take her place.  I was able to graduate with my BS in music, enroll at Piedmont in their MAT program for sped, was hired at Kennedy to teach on a provisional certificate, and from there life fell into place. (On a side note, this is also when I met my now-husband - the spring of 2002 was truly a life-altering time in my life on many levels!)

The degree program that I was in was a Master of Arts in Teaching degree for E/BD, SED and Autism.  The class I was teaching was a MOID class.  I took the Praxis in E/BD, K-5 gen ed curriculum, and the adapted curriculum (to be certified to actually teach the class I was in).  Just for the heck of it, I also took the Interrelated Praxis. That first year, especially the summer before I started teaching, I did a LOT of reading, researching and learning on my own. I went into teaching having had no education courses, no student teaching, no training in how to write an IEP or anything.  I spent the entire summer poring over my students' IEPs, ordered all the Wrightslaw books, joined CEC and NASET and read all the literature I could find through them.  I was so terrified of stepping into the classroom and messing up - I mean, these were children's lives I was dealing with! But that's another story ... I'm telling the story of how I became so obsessed with autism LOL.
My first class

So ... that first year, there were 3 students in my class who were served under an Autism label and one other who had a medical diagnosis but was served MOID through the school.  The other 4 students in my class were just your typical MOID students.  And I adored them all, I was determined not to have a favorite - but if I *had* allowed myself to have a favorite, I admit it would have been Andrew.  That kid was (is) just an amazing kid - and I give him full credit for leading me to where I am today.  Though in my "personal" education I was learning about kids with intellectual disabilities, my "formal" education was in E/BD, SED and Autism.  And honestly, the 4 kids in my class with Autism were much more challenging than the others, so I was spending more and more of my "free time" trying to understand this enigmatic spectrum.  And as anyone who has experience with ASD knows, the more I learned, the less I *knew* ... and the more curious I became.
Andrew through the net
Andrew at a reunion party at my house in 2008

Two of my professors in the MAT program encouraged me (relentlessly) to pursue my PhD, so as soon as I graduated, I applied to Georgia State's PhD program, with a concentration in Autism.  That's where I am now, I have one more class then my dissertation.  And still - the more I learn, the less I realize I know and the more I want to continue to learn.  I also have a very taboo plan for when I graduate - instead of joining the faculty at a research university (like the PhD program is preparing me for), I intend to remain in the classroom.  Sure, I may teach some college courses in the evenings.  And of course I want to continue to do research.  I just can't imagine leaving the classroom!! My eventual goal is to open a school for kids with moderate to severe autism either in or near Winder.

OK - back to the journey.  When I graduated with my MAT, I was still teaching students with MOID.  There were 10 students in my class, 5 of them had autism.  I also had three students who were in wheelchairs.  I ran into lots of problems trying to accommodate all of my students.  First of all, just setting up the classroom created a perdicament - for the wheelchairs, I obviously needed open areas so the kids could have access to everyting and be able to maneuver around the room.  For the kids with autism, however, I needed boundaries to define different areas for different activities and to discourage elopement.  Another problem arose in that some of my kids with autism had aggressive behaviors - and one of my students was medically fragile! And one of the kids with autism liked to try to push over the standers and other equipment - even if there was a child in it! How on earth do I make sure the students are safe? Not to mention that a little girl with Down's Syndrome was very affectionate and liked to hug people - and one of my boys with autism was very tactile defensive and reacted very negatively to being hugged, especially without any warning.  What do I do to keep her from hugging him and him from hitting her?? And then you get into instruction - there are diametrically different methods for teaching kids with severe autism and teaching "typical" kids with MOID.  I was basically having to run two separate classes within one classroom with one teacher. But - there was another MOID class across the hall - and about half of her students had moderate or severe autism as well.

Our school system did not have an "Autism Program" or an "Autism class", so I asked to just have the two MOID classes re-distributed, having the kids with more severe autism in one group and the more typical MOID kids in the other - and of course, I requested the class with the kiddos on the spectrum.  Since then, there is still no Autism program nor does there seem to be a plan to develop one in the county.  My class continues to be made up of students with severe autism (the classroom is still technically a "MOID class" - even though none of my students' IQs fall in the moderate range according to their test scores, ... which I don't necessarily agree present accurate representations of their abilities anyway - but those are other soapboxes!) For all intents and purposes, it may as well be an autism class.  Or an ABA class, whatever you want to call it (btw, I have taken all of the coursework to be a BCBA but have not sat for the exam yet because I don't have the supervised hours yet).

me and my A
Me with Andrew in 2007 at our county's Special Olympics

Anyway, that's how I got to where I am today, and the role that Andrew played in changing my life.  This was a long first post, and subsequent posts will be more focused on strategies, methods, techniques, activities, etc. - on *HOW* I teach kids with autism - but I felt that an introduction was a good place to start.  :-)

6 Responses to "I owe it all to Andrew!"

sheryl (visit their site)

Amazing story. It seems like I lived it with you. You are an amazing teacher and I am so proud of you. I love that Andrew too. He is a special child. MOM

MNicoleM (visit their site)

Thanks mommy :-) You did live it with me, remember?? And of course you love Andrew, everyone who meets him does!!

Anonymous (visit their site)

Hi Nicole,

Your blog is awesome! So many neat ideas. I am currently taking the Autism & Behavioural Sciences Program at Mohawk College (Canada). I was just wondering if you would be interested in answering a few questions regarding your experiences with autism in the classroom? Your blog is so inspirational! I hope you can be as successful in this field. If you are interested in answering some questions, please email me at scorreia3@gmail.com

Thanks in advance!
Sandra :)

janalaframboise (visit their site)

Hi Nicole!
Wow, reading your story, it's very similar to my own. I am also an ASD teacher in a self-contained school who is working towards a PhD while teaching and who plans to remain in the classroom. I just started a blog that I also called autism teacher, but I am still working on layout and bio and whatnot. I googled "autism teacher" before creating my blog to make sure noone had it and yours did not come up on the first few pages of the search, but then afther I created mine I accidentally typed it into the google bar instead of the address bar and there you were. How exciting! I will definately bookmark your blog and borrow your ideas for my classroom. Sorry I accidentally stole your name; there is no "the" in mine, and it's not on blogspot, so there should be no confusion. It was a really nice surprise to see my website referenced in your post on the ABLLS (trackingsheets.net). I was wondering why there was such a jump in users! Thanks again for the ideas and the inspiration!

Anonymous (visit their site)

Hi Nicole,

Your blog is very helpful & resourceful!! Thank you for sharing your passion with us. I'm really blessed :)


Casey Sentz (visit their site)

Hi Nicole! Just came upon your blog and your story is similar to mine. I just finished my alternate certification and teach in a classroom similar to yours. I'm thinking about starting BCBA courses soon. I'm excited to follow your blog. It seems you have many great ideas. :)

- Casey Sentz