The door opens and Kevin walks through the door with his Dad. His sun glasses dark, and his smile barely visible. “He’s excited to be at school today,” his dad remarks as he helps Kevin get ready for the day. Kevin speaks with his eyes, bounces on his toes, and he is learning how to form words. I’m subbing in this high school classroom for a few days, and I’m learning how to work with the autistic students. Packed with snacks, medicines, journals for communication, change of clothes, diapers, and ipads and ipods, the student book bags get dropped off by the door; and they get ready for the day.
Zech comes in next. His hat is backwards, his one strand of red Mardi Gras beads is around his neck. He looks down and seems to be listening to noises around him. His favorite animal shelter T-shirt reminds us that his weekly trips to work at the shelter is a highlight in his week. He knows what teachers are not in the room, and asks, “When’s Mary coming back?” His eyebrows dip down, and he slowly forms his words. Zech works on his forgetfulness by trying to remember his weekend.
You can hear Mark coming down the hall. He sings, he snaps, he yells. “Mark’s here,” we say. His Lynard Skynard shirt might be loud, but his hello is quiet. Mark can finish your sentences with one word; and he has been in this classroom, with this teacher, for four years.
“Four years, Kerrybeth.” Mark’s teacher says in victory. “It’s taken four years for Mark to say, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?'”. His eyes smile in delight to his teacher’s jokes, so we know he is listening.
I’m just a sub, I remark on Facebook chat. These teachers come everyday! I get to take time off; these teachers could use some time off!
Tall Cody comes in next with his red cooler full of healthy food. His eyes are asking if he can sit in the lazy boy recliner and listen to music. “Hi Cody , put your cooler away and check your schedule.” His teachers say.
The small classroom fills up with four patient teachers and four energetic high school autistic boys. Aaron comes in next. He teeters in the door and sings a tune in a high pitched voice. He’s new to the classroom and loves sitting on the big green couch facing the smart board. He also likes to give a “baby” bite to say hello if he places his head on your shoulder. His shoes slap on the floor, and his stamping on the floor is a constant noise in the room adding to the singing, the snapping, the tapping – a Symphony of Sounds.
Morning group, arts and crafts, PE, lunch, and recycling are the normal schedule of the day. Each student has a teacher with them at all times. The lead teacher smiles, stands close to each student, looks up into the boy’s faces, speaks quietly, and treats each boy like he is her own. She has a plan. She has a organized schedule, yet she is flexible with her plan. She tells success stories of former students – maybe this keeps her going. Her patience is remarkable, and her laughter blends in with the many sounds in the room.
Most of the students do not talk, so the teachers in the classroom continue conversations from the previous days. If we talk too much, and don’t pay attention to the students, they will let us know by getting loud and might through a tantrum for attention.
“It’s time to go!” The classroom door opens and closes with students coming and going to complete jobs around the school. I’ve learned to come in the classroom slowly and quietly because any excitement will make students get louder. The first day I subbed, I wore big hoop earrings. After watching my fellow teachers, I realized that they might get pulled while working with autistic students. They also taught me to wear baggy clothing so if a students gets grabby, they will pull our outer clothing.
Imagine a 6 foot young man. Now imagine that young man with behaviors of a 1 year old. They often grab, bite, spit, and need to be put in time out.
I’m not an expert in working with autistic behavior, but one of the TA’s told me that we use “mostly” common sense. I’ve increased my common sense while working in this classroom. I’m just a outsider trying to help in any way I can. I model the other teachers and talk quietly and try to stop the students if they lunge for the classroom door.
Parents send notes that say, “My son woke up at 3 AM, he might be tired today.” This week while I was subbing, we received two notes that said the same thing. Our boys did not get much sleep last night.
My favorite time of the week is Music Therapy (or maybe Bowling Day). The therapist engages students by playing her keyboard, singing, and having the students finish her songs. They play instruments, and try to keep beat to the songs. They are typical boys when they get bored during class. They yawn, look around the room like, “When is this going to be over?”
Their reward from all their hard work, and the teacher’s too, is a movie at the end of the day. After the chores, the lights go off, and the boys chill on the couch or lazy boy chair and watch a movie. As the buses arrive, one-by-one they pick up their book bags, sing or shout while they wave good-bye, and walk with teachers to their rides at the end of the day.
The teachers ready the room for the next day and go home to get some rest. It’s a family, really. They see each other every day, eat, play, sing, and go bowling together.
The conductors, the musicians, the symphony hall, the composers – The room is quiet now. Everyone has gone home for the day. Teachers assess the day, and head home. The next morning – the orchestra will start again.
PS: The lead teacher in this classroom was awarded Teacher of The Year just this month! And below is a photo of one of the students in arts class.