This past year I have had the privilege to get to know many people like myself who support Autistic individuals in their education and communication using letterboards, iPads, and keyboards. Most are also parents of Autistic kids, but a handful are not. They are a select few teachers, speech pathologists, and aides who have found great joy, purpose, and fulfillment in helping other people's children find their voices. What is amazing is that they are equally as passionate as parents, perhaps even more so as they get to make a difference in many lives. Oftentimes these professionals have faced ridicule and dismissal among their peers because what they do is so contrary to what they were taught and trained to do in their profession. BUT they continue on because what they do works! The satisfaction they get from their students' success far outweighs anything else. You will never find more excited, compassionate, and effective teachers as these! They are the game changers. I have faith that someday the rest of their professions will have to catch up with them and we will live in a world where all Autistic people will be heard and will be seen for who they truly are.
Two of the amazing teachers (and there are more out there!) I want to highlight are Elizabeth Vosseller and Lenae Crandall. Elizabeth Vosseller is a pediatric speech pathologist and owner/ director of Growing Kids Therapy Center in Herndon Virginia. She recently included RPM into her practice and is seeing amazing results. Her love and excitement for "her kids" is palpable as she describes their breakthroughs and progress in her blog at www.growingkidstherapy.wordpress.com. I will feature her in a future post.
The other amazing teacher is Lenae Crandall. Lenae Crandall is a certified special education teacher and founder/ director of Hope, Expression, and Education for Individuals with Severe Disabilities (HEED) (click here for link to website) which is based in Utah County. She left a traditional special education classroom to pursue doing RPM with her students full time and has never looked back. She has a heart of gold for the kids and families she serves. Many of her students have blogs which are listed in the Profiles tab and sidebar of my blog. Without further a due, I would like to introduce Lenae as my first ever guest blogger!
By Lenae Crandall
The Jefferson memorial in Washington DC has a quote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." One day I was conversing with an educational leader. This leader made the statement to me that I should be focusing on “functional skills” and so math instruction should look like counting while helping the child to brush his/her teeth. I was told that I should focus on teaching my students how to eat with a spoon over academics because parents don’t work on those things with their children. While I agreed that teeth brushing, eating with a spoon and other functional activities are very important, I left that day thinking about this Jefferson quote. I thought, “I will be fired before I ever deprive my students of important skills like reading and access to the world. I will fight against tyranny over my students’ minds”
This quote has defined my teaching career. I believe strongly in the education of ALL individuals. I believe in the capacity of EVERY human to learn and progress. Being religious I firmly believe all human beings were sent to earth with specific talents, purposes, and with a divine nature and worth. I believe that NO person was sent to fail or simply exist.
Because of these beliefs, my journey as a teacher has been to do what I can to unlock the doors that trap my students inside their bodies. Yes my students can move, but doesn’t mean they can verbally express what they want to say when they want to say it or do things on cue.
In the beginning of my career I was powered by the belief that all students could learn to read. I believed it to be the gateway to opportunity to learn to read. Reading opened doors to knowledge and communication. This was my first focus.
As I taught, I found my students were brilliant. I began developing or adapting tests so my students could respond. I saw they had the easiest time simply touching or pointing to an answer. I found my students-whom many thought couldn’t learn to read (and thought I was a bit nuts)- not only could learn how to read, but many were already reading and doing complex skills that they had learned from listening when others didn’t think they were listening, or self-taught in some way.
I realized since they were so intelligent that I needed to find a way for them to be able to communicate all these thoughts and therefore have fulfilling lives. Where would I turn?
One day I was re-reading “The Mind Tree” by Tito Mukhopadhyay. Tito is functionally non-speaking and Autistic. His mother taught him and believed in him until he could write out his thoughts. This was his first book written between the ages of 7 and 11years old.
As I read I realized that his mother had figured out how to break him free in so many ways, yet he still had the strengths that come with being Autistic! Where was she? I needed to find her! She had the answers I needed. I typed her name, Soma, in online to see if there was anything about her. I would like to meet her, talk to her, pay her to train me how!
I found her at www.halo-soma.org. She has taught over 1,000 children, non-speaking with Autism who many professionals said were severely intellectually disabled. She teaches students academics so they can access the world and they also learn to communicate. They start by picking choices (learn how to choose and what to choose) and then progress to spelling out answers by pointing to letters on a letter board (laminated piece of paper with letters a-z on it).
I began with my students. I wasn’t great at it at all at first, but I was so excited to see them point to their first letters to spell words showing they were reading!!!! But, now I had another challenge. Some professionals thought I was already nuts to believe they could learn basic early reading skills. Now I was claiming intelligence at likely normal to gifted levels. I had to keep on going.
Now I have students who are spelling thoughts to me like:
1- “I read. I can communicate. Mom, understands how to help me!”
2- Student note to parent, “It is just rotten my own room is so small.”
3- Student note to Dad: “Love you.”
4- Me: What do you want professionals to know about you?
Student: “I know a lot.”
5- Me: What do you want most in life?
Student Spells: “Help lonely people”
They answer questions about all different subjects. They (I) have work to do to fully communicate, but they now can have goals and dreams for their life. One of my students asked if I taught drama. I told him I didn’t, but did he want to learn? He wants to be a play writ and learn to act. Being a play writ is a realistic possibility. He now can have dreams!
I see hope in many of my student’s eyes, they are happier, they can have fulfilling lives if they are given continued chances to keep progressing and learning beyond “functional skills.”