First doctor’s visit. First haircut. First wave. First “Momma.” Autism is measured by these missed developmental milestones, and I have long since misplaced those typically developing checklists and corresponding stickers for my son’s baby book. His first doctor’s visit was for colic and every appointment that followed had its own nightmarish retelling. His first haircut had a similar story: fearful screams as if the barber would slice off a leg rather than a soft shaft of hair. We had no diagnosis, only a sinking feeling that something was wrong. He was a year old. He wanted no part of his birthday party or the birthday cake or the presents or the noise or the company. He got a “first birthday” sticker in his book, but not the stickers that would follow: first wave hello, say bye-bye. He did not say “momma” or “dada” or “milk” or “water” or “bed” or “hi” or “I love you.” We were left with an empty book and too many sticky reminders of those unreached milestones.
This was the autism life as we knew it — managing the daily challenges, triumphs, the revolving door of speech and occupational therapists in and out of our home, the unimaginable patience we drummed up each day, the enthusiasm for small requests, the attempts at eye contact and sounds that resembled words. Autism didn’t just isolate my son from the world; it isolated and insulated all of our worlds. There were no family vacations and too often our best laid plans were force abandoned by meltdowns or overwhelming anxiety.
That’s until I met you: the teacher in his first self-contained special-education classroom. My son was my first exposure to autism, but you were experienced with students on the spectrum. As I tried to explain the nuances of his anxieties, you reassured me and said: I will keep him safe. I cried knowing he would be afraid and confused, and you replied: He will have fun and learn how to be more independent. And each time, you were right. That’s until you kicked him out. You argued that the self-contained classroom was no longer his least restrictive environment, so you helped me find a hybrid, inclusive (reverse mainstream) preschool classroom where he would have typically-developing peers who could help with his speech and social interactions.
So then I met you: the dual-endorsed elementary and special-education teacher who invited my son to the classroom on a quiet evening after a long day of teaching other students. You sat on the floor with him while he looked at trucks and trains. You didn’t ask him any questions. You just sat quietly while he explored, and you joined him. He grabbed a car so you grabbed a car. He put down a block. You put one on top. Then you pulled out a basket and started cleaning up, and he followed in unison without either of you saying a word. Weeks later, you asked your bus driver friend to park outside your classroom during the middle of the school day. I told you he was scared of the big bus, despite his love for anything with wheels. You said: Let me try and led all the students outside, rolled pennies onto the floor, and created a scavenger hunt. All of a sudden, my son was climbing onto a bus looking for pennies — just like the rest of his new friends. You emailed me nearly every day of the entire school year to tell me about his meltdowns, his accomplishments, his response to the fire drill, the student assembly, and you brainstormed with me how we might get him potty trained before kindergarten. You graduated him with honors.
Now onto the big school with the big bus and the big kids. And there you were again: the teacher. This time an inclusive, general-education kindergarten teacher with a huge smile and a high voice and bright running shoes. You taught him to love school, to read, to make friends. You coached him into taking turns on the tricycle. You made him star of the week and came to his first ever friend birthday party because he invited you. You hugged him every day (and still do when he sees you in the hall).
Now we get to track educational milestones — and they’re sticky, too, with glue and finger paint and your silly smiley faces at the top of his first grade work. My son has a favorite author, greets his bus driver every morning, has play dates with his neighborhood friend, enjoys school and told me twice today that he loves me — and it’s largely because of you, teacher. Doctors visits are still challenging, meltdowns happen, haircuts are out of the question, but now I have someone from the “outside” who understands, who will brainstorm interventions and offer objective advice. You have asked me to trust you and, in return, you love my son. You keep him safe, teach him independence, and instill a love for learning. You honor his way of being in the world. You are a part of our autism life and make us all feel less isolated. Never underestimate your role or question whether or not you make a difference. Trust me: You do.
Amy Price Azano is a professor of adolescent literacy at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @ruralprof.