A Symphony of Sounds – Autism in the Classroom

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.


When I was young on Sanibel Island

When I was young on a Sanibel Island

When I was young on Sanibel Island, I would ride my blue bike during our youth group bike trips and try to keep up with my sisters.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, the black birds swinging on the top of the trees of Lighthouse Beach would cry out in peaceful tones.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, our stop at the burger place would beat out the health food pita pockets filled with bean sprouts our mom used to make us eat.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, the tradition on the multi-bridge causeway, for our car filled with girls, was to roll down the windows and smell the sea air.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, my sisters would dig their own custom beach chairs into the sand and would dig a small one for me right next to theirs.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, my dad would take me fishing, and I would play and sing on the rocks while he fished near the bridge.

When I was young on Sanibel Island, the Periwinkle Shops were the last place to stop before the sleepy ride back home and back over the causeway.

Main Street Goodbyes

“This was submitted for a news story on the homepage. The home page has always been for Disney related news in the past and this didn’t seem to fit in with that. It’s a nice story though, so I decided to post it here. I hope the person who submitted it doesn’t mind. I didn’t just want to delete it.” http://www.disneycorner.com

Main Street Goodbyes

“It is a splinter,” I said a little too loudly, “And this is happening on the worst day possible.”
My husband raced to find tweezers and a needle.
Dad knelt beside the couch early that morning and spoke to my 6-year-old daughter, “I don’t think it is a splinter, Katie. You are going to be fine.”
Dad tried to calm us down and encouraged us through this sudden family “catastrophe”. I was skeptical about the black mark on the tender part of Katie’s foot. We still had to get out the door, get breakfast and get to the Magic Kingdom so we could enjoy a full day with Grammy and Papa. Someone had to keep this group moving, and this splinter was not in my strategic plan for today.

Going to the Magic Kingdom was one of our most exciting family events when I was a child, so sharing my own family’s trip to Disney today with my parents was definitely going to be memorable.

Since childhood, Magic Kingdom stories were always a part of my family. The Country Bear Jamboree was my Dad’s favorite show. We laughed and sang Jamboree songs around the dinner table. I remember lingering on Main Street, taking the last of the family pictures, and then reluctantly leaving to take the sleepy tram back to our car.

With my kids on that clear October day, we ate at the Crystal Palace Character Meal, saw the Cinderella Surprise Show and rode our favorite rides. Mom and Dad took pictures with a Country Bear, which turned out to be my favorite pictures I snapped of the day.

Despite the great weather and perfect company, hurried thoughts jumbled in my head. We must experience every ride and show. Is everyone having a good time? Will everyone enjoy this ride? How much money are we spending? How can we beat the crowd to see Minnie? When the day ended, Grammy and Papa had to drive back to Ft. Myers, but my family decided to stay at the park to watch the fire works. So, we had to say goodbye on Main Street in front of the fall decorations. I was still in a hurry to experience more and said a quick goodbye and gave out fast hugs to my Mom and Dad.

What we didn’t know was that would be the last time we would hug our dear Papa. We had been planning the day for months, but little did we know, that we would treasure the time together for years.

Dad died a month later, the day after Thanksgiving, of a sudden heart attack. The night before my Dad’s Memorial Service, I found his video camera in his closet and a tape labeled “Disney” written in his own handwriting. With trembling hands I placed the tape in the camera and pressed play. On the tiny screen, the face of my four-year-old appeared. “Hi, Papa” he said sweetly, as we rode the tram through the parking lot toward our big day. My heart began to squeeze as I realized what I held in my hands. And although a part of me dreaded a whirlwind trip into such tender memories, I was compelled to keep watching and searching this treasure I had uncovered.
I could hear my Dad’s quiet breathing as he taped our family meandering onto the Ferry Boat. I experienced what he saw as he slowly scanned Main Street. He stood tall in the back of the crowd and filmed the Cinderella Castle Show so my kids could watch it again at home.

Later in the day, my husband took the camera and filmed my Mom and Dad as a huge Country Bear kissed Mom on the cheek. Dad shook a playful fist at the oversized bear. I was glad they were having fun.

The video of that day was my Dad’s gift to me; it was his last love letter to his youngest daughter and his last goodbye. I saw the Kingdom through his eyes and it was beautiful. It wasn’t my fast-paced, selfish view of the world. I saw a patient, kind, and reflective video diary of his last day with us.

I find I am living my life a little differently now. I make sure I say I love you, give bigger hugs and talk longer on the phone with my loved ones. I am mending relationships and taking a second look at my daily decisions.
My Father was right. My daughter did not have a splinter. It turned out to be a small black mark on her foot from playing outside. She walked through the park the whole day without a limp and with a smile. Dad was right…about many things.
I haven’t been back to the Park since he died. When I do visit the Kingdom again, I will remember my Dad’s reflective view through his camera. I will soak in the scenery, hug a character or two, and take time to appreciate my family. But those Main Street goodbyes will always be memorable because I’ll be saying goodbye to “The Happiest Place on Earth” and to my sweet father who taught me how to enjoy life and all those around me. – Kerry Gwaltney 2004




10 Authors Who Inspire Me

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Reading is my research. I try to gain insight into setting, plot, conflict, and characters. Lately, I’ve been too critical of my reading; and I can’t find a new author who has inspired me this year. Mainly because I’ve devoured … Continue reading


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Certainty in the Midst of the Uncertain

After five years of teaching in Malaysia, we have decided that it is time to look for a new assignment. We are sad, yet excited about our upcoming adventures. Our “human” plans include Rich working and include me staying home. This would be the first time I could be a stay-at-home mom since Ben was two! (He is 11 now.)

I love teaching; but I need a break to maybe take some classes, hang out with family, and just take time to chill. Oh, I and would like to do some writing.

It looks like in five months we will be packing up and moving. We don’t know where we are going, and that’s where the uncertainty comes in to our lives.

Rich has a few resumes all over the world; and as the designated worryier in our family, I must over think each possibility. I have to make a conscious effort to not think too much into the future.

A few of our friends have worked here in Malaysia and have moved back to their home countries and towns. They miss Malaysia and tell us that their re-entry was quite difficult. That makes me worry even more.

My friend is sending me a book entitled “Re-entry”. The book likens the re-entry time like returning from another planet. Maybe that will help us as we transition. “Hi, I’m from another planet. Take me to your, Leader.”

One night, my husband, before he fell asleep said groggily, “I sent a resume to Idaho”, and then he fell asleep. I, on-the-other-hand, stayed up for three hours. He is NOT allowed to comment right before bed about where he sent his resumes!

Also, I am hearing about so many people losing jobs in the US. My husband is not worried. He knows that God has a plan for us. I do too, but I am reminded often.

We had to tell our school in December about our plans because they have to start planning for next year. It was so weird to tell the school so early because we were still in the busiest part of our semester.

We thought when we arrived in Malaysia that we could live and work here forever. But my health and Rich’s schooling and God’s leading is directing us somewhere else….

This Christmas we kept saying, I wonder where we will be next year at this time? As we packed up our Christmas decorations, we packed them as they will be packed in our crate.

I think some of our friends can’t figure out why we move so much. We have actually found friends here in Malaysia that move more than we do! Our moving has helped us in many ways:

1. We get to meet new and interesting people.
2. We get to downsize our clutter and get rid of extra stuff.
3. We get to see new and exciting places
4. and most importantly, we get to see God’s hand as he guides us and leads us.

When we move, I get a bit freaked out; and I worry. Did I mention that I fret often? After we arrive at our location, I ALWAYS look back and see God’s hand; and I scold myself for giving so much time and energy to worrying.

“Don’t let worry on your front porch!” – a quote from Chuck Swindoll. Sometimes worry climbs in a window and then you can never get it out of your house… Well, Chuck reminds us to not even let it on our front porch!

Finances always get me down, because as I look at what we have to do with limited resources, I cannot see how it will work out. Then I try to work something out on my own, and it never works out.

As we move from Malaysia, I am taking one day at a time. I am praying about small things, and giving them over to God. I am covering my family in prayer, and keeping lines of communication open. We are looking into a re-entry time as we arrive in _________.

Isaiah 40, 41 have been encouraging chapters for us to read. Isaiah 41:13-14 says the following:

For I am the LORD your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
14 Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob,
little Israel, do not fear,
for I myself will help you,” declares the LORD.

How can I worry when He promises that He himself will help us! One version says that “He himself will go with us..”

So after many semesters at our school, after many friends who have come and gone, after many papers that we have graded, after 5 + Spiritual Emphasis Weeks, after 5 + Mission Emphasis Weeks, after many students we have discipled and counseled, it is time for us to head off the island to another God adventure. And next year at this time, I will be able to look back and see God’s hand in our journey.

Another Christmas card!

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