About 6 years ago, a co-worker asked if I would be interested in teaching a class of preschoolers with Autism. I answered, “No.” To be polite, I may have added, “I love what I’m doing now,” and it was true. After teaching kids of all ages with special needs for nearly 20 years, I was currently teaching an integrated preschool class. At that point, however, I hadn’t had much experience with young children diagnosed with Autism. I’ll confess that when I start something, I want to do it well, so knowing that about myself solidified my answer. Soon after that question was posed to me, I met Lila.
At the time I first met Lila, she did not yet have a diagnosis. I went to meet her in the daycare classroom of toddlers down the hall because I had been told that she might be moving up to our class. I remember that they were having cake, probably for a birthday celebration that day. The other kids were sitting at the table and eating but Lila was playing and seemed oblivious to the cake happiness going on at the table. I went over to her and got down to her eye level and asked, “Lila, do you want cake?” She moved away from me to continue her play. I don’t know what compelled me, but I picked her up and brought her over to the table. The screaming and thrashing that she did in the seconds it took to get her to the table made me question my actions. But as soon as she got sight of the cake, she perked up and sat down to eat. It occurred to me that maybe she just didn’t understand my question. Soon after that day, she moved into our classroom and I fell in love.
Lila was lovely and high-spirited. She used her facial expressions and affection to communicate since she didn’t have many words to express herself.
We used pictures to help her learn words and understand what was expected of her; she learned quickly. Not long after getting a diagnosis of Autism, a spot opened in our Partnership Program, an intensive classroom primarily for children with Autism. If offered a place in that class, she would receive a significant amount of individualized instruction. I remember hugging Lila’s mom, both of us with tears in our eyes, when the decision was made for Lila to change classrooms. We both knew it was a great opportunity. Over the course of the next year, I’d see and hear Lila in the hallway and be amazed at the progress she had made.
Over the years, there have been many other unique and special kids with Autism who have come through the door of our classroom. We’ve learned so much from every child. Recently, I heard a television commentator remark that “Autism is a terrible thing.” It struck me how strongly I disagreed with that statement. I recognize, having worked with so many brave and caring families, that having a child with Autism is incredibly challenging. But witnessing these children move from their private world into the bigger world around them is a thrill like no other. It’s like watching a baby bird hatch. The kids themselves I liken to rare, exotic gems, perhaps andalusite.
”…andalusite looks quite unlike any other gemstone, with patterns of colour dancing around the facets.”*
“Andalusite is a strikingly beautiful gem, but it is largely unknown to the general public…”**
I can’t think of any better analogy to explain what working with these kids is like. Some have no words but know all of their letters. Some can’t answer a question but learn songs in a snap. Others could tell you the shortest route to anyplace in town. The list of unique qualities goes on and on.
Four years after first meeting Lila I saw her again. Now 7 years old, she’s taller, more talkative, and lovely. When I looked at her I still saw stunning ‘patterns of color dancing around the facets.’ For some people, loving a child with Autism may be an acquired taste; after you learn to appreciate them, you find your life is unmistakably richer. You come to see that Autism is not a terrible thing, no more than andalusite is a terrible gem.