April 2nd is World Autism Day. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve worked with children with autism for the past 3 years. All through college, I could never decide on a career path. I spent the better part of my sophomore and junior years in the registrar office changing my major. I had a hard time committing to one program because I was passionate about so many fields. The one consistency among all my passions was my innate desire to help. To help animals, to help my classmates, to help my family, I felt compelled to help people in any situation in which they were struggling. After some careful consideration, and one painful semester as a biology student, I decided a degree in psychology was what I wanted. After attending several job fairs, I was drawn to the company for which I work now. I started my career as a community instructor in their children’s residential program two weeks after graduation. I spent the next four weeks in various trainings given to prepare me to work with this population. Once my four week training period was over it was time to work as a full-time staff in the house. The program I was hired for was brand new and, at the time I was hired, was still not open. The day my house opened changed my life forever.
We were all anxiously awaiting the arrival of our first resident. She arrived at the house in the early afternoon wearing all pink; pink shirt, pink shorts, pink shoes, and her favorite pink helmet. We were able to walk her into the house and upstairs to her room with no issues. The thick summer air seemed to follow us inside as we made our way to her bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall. There was a nervous energy circulating the room; everyone was a little on edge, not sure what to do or expect. We’d all heard the stories; the aggressions, the compulsions, the intense self-injurious behavior. But no one had really seen it in person so we walked on eggshells around the room and prepared for anything she might (literally) throw our way. She sat slouched on her bed, pieces of her dirty blonde hair sticking out of the holes in her helmet. After some time of talking and unpacking her things, we explained to mom that the helmet had to come off. When the helmet finally came off she stood up and we got our first real look at her. She was a little thing her blonde hair covering a swollen, battered face. Her eyes were so bruised and puffy you could barely see the icy blue of her stare. Her jaw was so inflamed her words got lost trying to find their way out of her mouth. I worked hands on with this student every day for what would be the next two and a half years.
I thought I knew patience, but I was wrong; I thought I knew compassion, but I was wrong; I thought I knew strength and perseverance and communication, but I was wrong. Working with these student’s has opened my eyes to a whole new world. A world where speaking without words happens seamlessly every day, where love without conditions is the basis of every classroom lesson, where hope knows no barrier. Children with autism are different, not less. They are, as Winnie the Pooh so eloquently put it, braver than you believe, stronger than they seem, and smarter than you think. So today, and ever day, I ask you all to Light it up blue for Autism Awareness and support your local schools and families and their efforts to provide the resources our students so desperately need.