5 Educator Tips for Serving the Needs of Children with Autism
By Jamie Pagliaro
I got my first job working with a child on the autism spectrum back in 1995 when I was a sophomore in college (most people had not even heard of autism then). So according to my math, this marks my 20th year “in the field.”
Over the past two decades, I have been privileged to work as a home-based ABA therapist, paraprofessional in a public school, case manager in a behavior clinic, and program director at a residential school. I have also had opportunity to open the first public charter school for individuals with autism in New York City and co-found an educational technology company, which now impacts more than 10,000 individuals living with autism and related disabilities around the world.
Today in the United States, it is estimated that 1 in 68 kids has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I’ve put together a few simple pieces of advice that I would give to my “self” of 20 years ago. I hope that these tips might influence other special needs professionals – both veterans like myself as well as those just getting started.
1. Never assume you know what parents are going through.
I am now a parent of two typically developing children and can honestly say you just don’t “get it” unless you are one. When I think of how challenging and stressful parenting can sometimes be with typical kids, it gives me perspective to realize that I can never truly understand what it’s like to parent a child with autism or any other disability. As a professional, just remember: you always get to go home at the end of your workday… Parents do not have that luxury.
2. Keep it all in perspective and smile!
Being around kids with challenging behavior, parents who are dealing with a lot of stress, and co-workers who may be burned out can be overwhelming. Remember: you are a professional who chooses to be here. Your job is to empower those around you – the students you serve, their families, and your own colleagues. Your goal is to foster a positive environment for each of them. If you find you can no longer do this, it’s time to take a break, or possibly change jobs. Which leads to my next piece of advice…
3. Find your niche; there are many ways to have an impact.
Not everyone is meant to teach or work directly with kids all day long any more than they are meant to be an administrator, researcher, or policymaker. There are many different ways to impact the lives of individuals you care about at a micro and macro level. No single job is more important than another. Collectively we must keep teaching our kids, advocating for ways to fund services, pioneering new research and innovative approaches, and leading schools and service organizations. When we all work together on these various needs, we succeed.
4. Never underestimate how challenging the future will be for the individuals you serve.
Life can be tough for all of us. Now imagine living it with a disability that may prevent you from communicating effectively, interacting with others, holding a job, living on your own, etc. Despite the incredible strides that have been made to raise awareness, our society still struggles to include individuals with disabilities in meaningful ways. Your empathy will go a long way toward helping them tackle these challenges.
5. Be an optimist, realist, and pessimist (when needed) all-in-one.
Sometimes you will be in a room with others who say “let’s be realistic,” “that’s not possible,” or even “he’s capable of more than we know.” These are all important perspectives to take when helping students with autism, their family members, and the professional teams who are making decisions that can have long-term implications on their lives. Don’t get caught always taking the same perspective, or forgetting to take on different perspectives when looking at the possibilities. Looking similar situations through different lenses will enable you to help your students in more meaningful ways.
In conclusion, take what you are doing seriously, because you are doing some of the most important work on earth. However, don’t take yourself too seriously! Make sure to keep having fun and be a source of humor and compassion for those around you.
Remember that 50% of parents caring for a child with a developmental disability like Autism need help managing their stress.