Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Teacher spends a day with Autistic student and learns this about about New York City Public Schools

Anonymous

Reporter

April. 26, 2021

Have you ever wondered what daily life is like for Autistic children? They live in a world that still isn’t completely set up for them, even though they account for a large population in society. In 2020, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the United states is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The numbers of children with Autism has increased dramatically in the last two decades. In the 1980s autism was reported as 4 in 10,000 and in the 90s 1 in 2500. With the numbers steadily increasing, the education system in America has had to evolve to meet the needs of the Autism population in every way. From teacher training, creating schools, curriculums, and classroom settings. However, have traditional public schools met their needs? There is still so much more to learn about the Austistic population, and so much more the U.S. needs to learn when pertaining to how to meet their needs in K-12 school settings and beyond.

As an educator whose career has been focused on working with the special education population and mainly Autistic children, one teacher decided to find out how she could meet the needs of students with Autism beyond the classroom. Tahirah Simmonds, a nineteen year veteran in education, started her career as a paraprofessional for students with Autism, and was a special education classroom teacher for 11 years before becoming an education consultant and adjunct professor for novice teachers. To better understand how society could better meet the needs of Autistic people, she shadowed one Autistic adolescent for a day at his new school, and was amazed at what she found. Please read her experience in the post below.

By Tahirah Simmonds (Note: Student name has been changed for this article)

Year 2002

I first began my education career at the age of 22 in 2002. I decided that teaching was the path I was going to take, and that I would work with general education middle school students. However, at the time I was also the mother of a two year old, in college, and needed a job. Choosing to become a paraprofessional (what teaching assistants are called in NYC) seemed like a no-brainer because it provided me with the ability to get the experience I would later need to support my teaching career. However, I was quite naive as to how paraprofessionals were used within the New York City Public School System. I figured all were used as teaching assistants in various classroom settings, and I could choose the general education population as my top choice. Looking back on it now I laugh at my lack of knowledge. The first assignment I got as a para was for a D75 school, which is the district for students with disabilities. Not only was I assigned this district, but I was told to report to a school designed for Autistic students. My first reply was what is Autism? I then asked the human resource person if there was anything in regular settings available because I don’t have experience working with students with special needs. Well my naive bubble popped in this moment. I was told a para’s role was designed to go into high needs settings, so if I wanted a job, all assignments offered would be in special education settings. To say I was devastated was an understatement. I called my mom who was a teacher at the time, telling her I don’t think I can handle children with disabilities, and asking what I should do? My lack of experience and fear had me wanting to quit before the job even began. I also didn’t understand why adults with no training were being hired to work with children who needed people with extensive training to support them?

My mother explained to me that when she was pursuing her teaching career, Autism was rare and foreign to most teachers. Therefore, she was able to complete her student teaching role as well as being an assistant teacher in general education settings. However, the need to meet the growing population had redefined the role of assistant teachers, who were now being assigned to high needs school settings. I’m ashamed to admit this, but my lack of awareness made me fearful of working with the Autistic population. My first day as a paraprofessional left me in tears, so much so that I once again called my mother to get the “okay” to quit. Until that point, I had never been around an Autistic person, and being put in a school with no training surrounded by them intimidated me. My mom bluntly told me to buckle down, open my mind and learn them, and I’m so glad I did! Nineteen years later and the Autism population are my favorite people. Not only as an educator working with them, but my favorite human beings to be around. You also know the saying “everything happens for a reason,” well my son at the time ended up being diagnosed with ADHD and Mild Turrets Syndrome. The foundational experience I had working with the Autistic population, became a great support in my advocacy for my son on his educational journey throughout the years.

Year 2021

Last school year marked the first time in four years that I went back into the classroom as a teacher. I was hired as a curriculum consultant by a popular special education private school with a very unique curriculum and setting. Because I had classroom experience, I was asked to teach a literacy course to a small group of 17 year old Autistic students. 90% of the schools population were children on the Autism Spectrum, the school was housed on a 200 acre farm (seeing horses, cows, and other farm animals daily were a norm), and the school used a progressive curriculum approach. Additionally, on-board housing was offered for the teaching staff. Upon graduation, students’ families had the opportunity to have their now adult children live on campus with their peers as roommates, and staff members who rotated taking shifts as a “dorm resident.” If there’s one thing I’ve come to know as an educator, it’s that learning never stops, and until this point in my career, I had never witnessed a special education school setting as unique as this one. I was impressed with the emotional and life skill support it provided for ASD students (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Many ASD special needs schools focus on the academic curriculum, when more emphasis should be on emotional and life skills support, and this school did that. Many students were bussed from outside of the district, some travelling for an hour each way, and that’s because the schools reputation for supporting their students exceeding themselves.

Hindsight

Whenever I look back on my career in its early stages in 2002 to 2008, I always say quite frankly, I sucked! Sounds harsh, but I always felt that to be true. However, in hindsight, I now know I sucked because I had zero training nor anyone to mentor me when working with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) students. Moreover, the school I was assigned, like many special education public schools, was not designed to properly support the Autistic population. I didn’t know how to properly meet the needs of my students, and I had no one mentoring me to show me how, and I was hired with absolutely no training whatsoever, a hiring practice which still happens for paraprofessionals. Teacher training at the time also didn’t extensively cover classes which trained you for working with ASD students. Most teachers who began their careers in large high needs schools were probably in my boat, and it’s sink or swim! Coupled with working in the largest public school system in the U.S. my first two years of teaching from 2007–2009 were a struggle, and many days ended in tears out of frustration. However, with any challenge learning takes place.

James

By the time I got to James I was in year 18 of my career and felt I had the necessary skills to support him. As stated earlier, learning never stops, and working with James taught me more. Previously I worked with students like James in traditional D75 special education district settings. However, this school setting was new to me and taught me new ways to work with ASD children. James is an 18 year old young man with Autism. He communicates with words and physically through body language gestures and his eyes. Even when an Autistic person doesn’t communicate with words, I don’t like to say they’re “non-verbal” because they do communicate in other ways, even if it’s sounds and body language. Anyway back to James, he does communicate with words but not in complete sentences, such as if he wants water, he’ll say “Tahirah water.” I usually reiterate his wants in complete sentences and will say “can I have some water please” in which he repeats occasionally. At a whopping 6ft tall, James looks like your typical 18 yr old at a glance but his interests are one of a younger child. He loves the movie Toy Story and various nursery songs. He’s a lovable person who enjoys hugs and walks outside with company. However, there is a flipside to James that we haven’t quite figured out. Sometimes James can become extremely agitated to a point where he’ll attempt to harm himself or whomever is around him. We figured out that one of his triggers is disorganized scheduling. He needs to see his schedule for the day written down, and if there’s a schedule change, it can trigger his agitation. Furthermore, there are times when his schedule is in place but these episodes still happen, and this brings us to the reason why James’ parents made the decision to pull him out of his traditional D75 setting in the city, and bus James an hour to school and back each day. James was having frequent episodes in his previous traditional special education setting and needed the emotional support his current school setting is known for. Below is a typical schedule for James, which was also used to shadow him.

School Schedule

9:00–9:30: Movement

9:40–10:10: Morning Greeting

10:15–10:45: Math and Literacy

10:50–11:20: Snack

11:25–11:55: Cooking or Farming

12:00–12:30: OT & Speech

12:30–1:30: Lunch

1:35–2:05: Art

2:10–2:45: Wind down/Clean up/Home

My Day with James

My day with James and the year spent working with him solidified my thoughts and beliefs of Public Special Education Schools in New York City, and that is that it needs a major structural change. From the curriculum provided, teacher and paraprofessional training, to the design of the classrooms. His parents express how he went from frequent and severe meltdowns in his previous school setting to a much calmer demeanor in his new school, and that really made me smile. I spent the day with James who readily participated in all of his courses, crossed each subject off his list as it was completed (a ritual which calms him), and who heavily enjoyed snack, lunchtime, and farming. At one point towards the end of the day James began to become agitated, I knew this because he’ll begin to make these yelp sounds. However, I used a previous behavioral support tool put in place familiar to James before the agitation increased. I asked James what would he like to do? He had three choices: 1. To take a walk outdoors 2. To practice breathing techniques 3. Go to lay down on the calming sofa in his classroom. James chose a walk, and as we began walking around the school grounds, his feeling dissipated. James then said “Tahirah back now” when wanting to head back to his peers. This is a skill acquired since James began attending his current school. Since working in this setting, I’ve realized how much special education public schools in New York aren’t properly supporting students with disabilities, especially ASD students. My biggest takeaways or lightbulb moments of how they can change to better support our SWD (students with disabilities) students are:

Lightbulb Moment #1

Shorter periods, transitional breaks, and outdoors are a must!

Traditional schools (general and special education) such as James’s previous school had longer periods, classes were mainly indoors, and breaks weren’t frequent. James’s parents and teachers have seen a vast improvement in the frequency of his emotional outburst with short incremental periods and transitional breaks. Additionally, when James is triggered, he is immediately given the choice to be taken for a walk outdoors, offered breathing techniques, or time to rest, all of which calms him, and could help students like him. In his previous setting I was told he was put in what is called a “calming room”, which is a windowless 6x6 room with a mat on the floor, which further caused his anxiety. Going outdoors when triggered has worked so well that James’s parents have adopted this practice at home.

Lightbulb Moment #2

Classes which support mindfulness should be mandatory

This brings me to some of the classes seen on the schedule above. Movement, a class done daily first thing in the morning, consists of yoga movements and breathing exercises. James, along with his peers, has movement every morning, which I think not only sets a calming tone for the day, but teaches Autistic students who tend to struggle emotionally how to use those skills when triggered. Additionally, classes such as farming are also a great support for Autistic children. Utilizing animals as a therapy support for people with emotional and neurological disorders has been a longstanding practice proven to work. James along with his peers took turns brushing the horses and seeding some new plants.

Lightbulb Moment #3

All children could benefit from having more learning opportunities outdoors

If you look at James’s schedule you’ll notice that there’s only one academic period for math and literacy, which is 30 minutes in duration. Furthermore, 95% of James’s classes are either outdoors or he’s transitioning outdoors to a classroom in another building located on the farm. We walked outdoors to get from class to class, and this is done no matter the weather. All parents agree to the outdoor concept and are instructed to provide a change of clothes, rain and snow gear daily. James’s current school also doesn’t place a large emphasis on traditional subject contents such as math and literacy, hence only having it for 30 minutes per day. They focus on emotional support and teaching lifelong skills, students such as James can use to thrive in the world. As a teacher who worked with Autistic students for years, never have I seen ASD adults thriving in the world because they can do extensive math and read lengthy novels. Their biggest challenge is being able to proficiently function socially and emotionally in the world around them. By learning skills that support them emotionally and socially, this will enable them to live a more independent life, which is the goal for all parents of Autistic children. Personally, I think all students could benefit from learning outdoors more, I think we as educators would get more student engagement, as well as this could help students with attention deficit disorders.

James’s school is the first setting of it’s kind that I had the pleasure of working with last year. Before going there, I didn’t think a school as progressive as theirs existed, furthermore for students with disabilities. My biggest takeaway was that the New York City Public School System has a tremendous amount of work to do when it comes to supporting our special needs population. Although the numbers for students with Autism has grown in great numbers throughout the decade, the public educational system has not caught up or prepared itself on how to adequately support these children. Proper support, which our SWD children desperately need (our failing numbers speak to the change needed) will take policy change, and looking at schools like the one James attends as a model for moving in the right direction.

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Tahirah Simmonds

Tahirah Simmonds

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