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.
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 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 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. :-)
Posted by MNicoleM