To the Teachers Who See My Son’s Autism as His Strength

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“Can I help you find something?”

“Yes. I’m looking for an end of the year present for my son’s teachers.”

“Can you tell me a little about them?”

“Well, sure. I need something special. I know we all say that, but I really mean it.”

I pause for a moment.

“My son calls himself Hero Howie at school. But his special education teachers? Actually all of my kids’ teachers? They are heroes, too. His and mine.”

“I have just the thing.”

hero bracelet gift for a teacher

Because you help my kid out of the car in the school-drop-off circle with a hello every morning.

Because you watch him in the cafeteria before school starts to make sure he starts his day off on the right foot.

Because you welcome him in to the school and know him by name.

Because you believe in him when no one else does.

Because you understand how a slight muscle movement or seat squirm or change-in-tone of voice means he’s overwhelmed and needs a break.

Because you modify the assignments to fit my kid. Not because he can’t do the work, but because you know when he’s reached his limit.

Because you read books and websites and attend seminars outside of school hours to understand my kid better.

Because you love to come to work every day knowing it’s about my kid and his successes.

Because it’s not just a job to you.

Because you see autism not as a limit, but as his strength, and you step out of the diagnosis box to see him as an individual.

Because you understand that the aggressions are not personal but part of the fight-or-flight overload of the day.

Because you wake up after those tough days ready to teach again.

Because you celebrate his successes and stay up at night figuring out how to help him the next day.

Because you believe in progress, not perfection.

Because you do cartwheels in the halls and make collages of every single picture you’ve taken of him.

Because you request to be my child’s aide and teacher next year.

Because you love him.

Because you taught him to believe in himself. And love himself.

To Mrs. M and Mrs. C and Mrs. S at the elementary school and Mrs. M at the preschool…

You. You are the heroes.

And for that, I am forever grateful.

This post originally appeared on Try Defying Gravity.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Write a thank you letter to someone you realize you don’t thank enough. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Meet Tameka Graham, One of Our Mighty Special Needs Teachers of the Year

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Tameka Graham is a 39-year-old special needs educator at ACE Learning Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She teaches pre-kindergarten, ages 1 to 4, and has a mixed ability classroom, including children with autism and Williams syndrome.

This school year, The Mighty asked its readers to nominate a special needs teacher who made a difference in their or their loved one’s life. To nominate, they submitted an essay to us. Our staff then picked five teachers, and Graham made the cut. So we reached out to her to learn more about what makes her so Mighty.

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Describe the moment you knew you wanted to be a special needs educator.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Middle Tennessee State University and I was working with children previously. I was linked with a friend who had typical and atypical children in her classroom. I just learned to love the kids and to know them as individuals.

When I was born, I had epilepsy and my daughter has epilepsy. Doctors gave me a life expectancy of the age of 4, but here I am, at the age of 39. So there’s nothing to limit my students. No matter if a doctor says, “He has autism and this is what he can and cannot do,” I work beyond that. I won’t limit them to anything.

What is the most challenging day-to-day part of your job?

Figuring out if a child is having a bad day, where that spark is coming from. I’m trying to figure out what triggered that downfall and how to work around it to prevent it from happening again.

Tameka

What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a special needs teacher? 

Learn the child; if you don’t know a child then you can’t do anything to help. Go in with an open mind, I don’t treat any child different. Keep eyes open, ears open, mind open; a lot of classroom observers are unaware which children have disabilities, and that’s the goal.

What would you change about the special education system?

A lot. Just because someone has a special need, you shouldn’t limit them. Don’t focus so much on the disability, focus on the child.

Describe a moment when you were satisfied with your job.

One kid come to me with no words and left with six.

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What can parents of special needs children do to ensure their child gets the most out of school?

Always have their back and always push forward. I know there’s gonna be hard days, but there are hard days for everyone. There are people just like you. Reach out.

What is one way you make learning fun for your students?

We play a lot, we sing a lot , we dance a lot. Learning together is fun.

What is the most memorable thing a student or parent has said to you?

Just to tell me how much they appreciate me and to see the tears of joy when their kid has a breakthrough.

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How do you motivate a reluctant learner?

Oh, I just don’t ever give up. Continue to repeat the same thing: “We’re gonna get this.”

What concerns do parents have for their children? How do you address these worries?

They worry about if their children will ever be in a regular education classroom, but with time and effort and, if we’re both on the same page, we can work to that. That’s a major thing — to be on the same page.

Is there bullying in your classroom? How do you deal with it?

Oh no, I don’t allow that. I explain to all the kids in my classroom that some may need a little help and I call them “Big Friends.” Working together is important.

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What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing these kids succeed and seeing them overcome things their parents thought they wouldn’t.

Describe the most surprising moment you experienced in the classroom.

Just to hear a child who hasn’t spoken or said any words have a breakthrough and have them say, not just one, but two or three words at a time. I had one who hadn’t said any words and he broke through with, “all done” and I just started dancing around the classroom.

 

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Fans of Model With Down Syndrome Make Big Request to People Magazine

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Madeline Stuart has caught the eyes of many since her inspiring story about wanting to become a model first made headlines in May. The 18-year-old from Brisbane, Australia, has Down syndrome, and she struggled with her weight until she decided to eat healthier and began exercising regularly about a year ago, The Mighty reported in May.

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Photo from Stuart’s Facebook page.

After losing more than 40 pounds from swimming, working with a personal trainer, cricket training with Special Olympics, hip-hop dancing and cheerleading, Stuart shared her dreams of becoming a model on Facebook. Quickly thereafter, she landed her first official modeling gig with Living Dead, an Australian clothing line.

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Photo via Stuart’s Facebook page.

Since initially sharing her story, Stuart has modeled for Michael Murchie, a photographer based in Brisbane, and Lullabelle Photography. This August, she will participate in the 2015 Autoimmune Metro Style Fashion Show in New York City.

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Photo from Madeline Stuart’s Facebook page.
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Photo via Stuart’s Facebook page.

Now, Stuart’s ever-growing fan base on social media is petitioning People magazine to feature her on its front cover. The Change.org petition has garnered more than 650 signatures in just a few days, and aims to hit 1,000 signatures by the end of the campaign.

“Maddie Stuart is a true inspiration that is redefining beauty standards. She stands as an exemplary role model to all people with and without disabilities,” the petition reads. “We want People magazine to feature Maddy Stuart on the front cover to continue promoting these constructive values.”

Being featured on the cover of People magazine would help Stuart continue to spread the awesome message that’s been behind her career from the beginning — Down syndrome is not a hinderance; it’s something to be celebrated.

“Make sure everyone knows that a model rocking her extra chromosome is fully appreciated by society,” Stuart wrote on Facebook. “This is our chance to change the world.”

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Photo via Stuart’s Facebook page.

If you’d like to see Madeline Stuart on the cover of People magazine, sign the Change.org petition here. To keep up with Stuart’s increasingly busy modeling career, visit her website. She is also active on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Related: “Teen Steps in Front of the Camera for All the Right Reasons.”

h/t Inquisitr

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Grieving Mother Shares the Part of Childbirth No One Wants to Talk About

 

Dr. Eleni Michailidis knew something was wrong when she stopped feeling her unborn baby move 38 weeks into her pregnancy. At first, she thought he was maybe running out of room in her womb, but she decided to head to the doctor’s office to be safe, she told The New York Times.

An ultrasound revealed that her son’s heart had stopped beating. Michaildis isn’t alone. About 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She delivered her son, Alexander, and got to spend four hours with him.

In the powerful video above, she shared what is was like to deliver a stillborn baby on a hospital floor filled with celebration and how experiences like her own aren’t as rare as one may assume.

“I consider myself a mom. I had a son. He was stillborn. People don’t talk about it because it’s too disturbing, or it’s just silenced because nobody wants to hear these things,” she told The New York Times. “But it happens, and it happens enough.”

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Why I’m Rethinking My ‘Things Not to Say to Special Needs Parents’ List

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A while back, I wrote a post about special needs parents and the things that you shouldn’t say to them… ever. As I sit here today thinking about that post and going over the list of things that bothered me, I feel kind of silly.

These were some of the things on my list:

  • “She sure looks like she has a mild case of Down syndrome.”
  • “Kids with Down syndrome are always happy.”
  • “I’m so sorry that this happened to your family.”
  • “She looks so normal.”
  • “You sure are handling this well.”
  • “What will happen to her after you die?”

But I’ve come to a new point in my life, or had an epiphany, or crossed a bridge, whatever you want to call it. Whatever it is, it feels pretty good.

I’ve been overly protective when it comes to Adele. I overanalyze almost everything and I automatically assume people are ignorant and can’t see the beauty that lies within my child.

The first one on my list above makes me laugh today. I laugh because I actually said this when I was pregnant with Adele. Those words came out of my mouth. I didn’t know I’d said this until I recently came across a message I sent a friend on Facebook. I wanted my child to have a “mild case” of Down syndrome.

Those words irritate me when they come out of another person’s mouth, yet I said the exact same thing. You know what this tells me? I was ignorant. I was uneducated when it comes to Down syndrome. I had no idea, yet I get offended and on the attack when others make these types of comments about my child. It made me take a step back.

Recently, I’ve come across some posts on Facebook where moms and dads are bitter at others for the comments they make about our children. I think what we need to realize is that we’re the ones traveling this journey. We’re the only ones who know exactly what it’s like to walk in these shoes. We experience the major ups and down of having a medically fragile child or a child with special needs. We need to stop assuming that others get it. They might not get it. Doctors, nurses, therapists and other professionals don’t always get it. It’s up to us to speak up, and we need to encourage change. But biting your tongue and cursing in your head isn’t the best solution.

People don’t know what to say. People don’t know how to say it. People sometimes feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, they don’t want to hurt our feelings, then it comes out all wrong and we get upset and post it all over social media that another jerk made an insensitive comment about our child.

I realized I was one of those people before Adele came into our lives. I know I said the wrong things, I asked the wrong questions and I said things in a way that may have been offensive. Never would I have wanted to cause pain or hurt to others, but it didn’t always come out right. I could just imagine what others said about me after I walked away. What did I expect of others? I wanted to learn, I wanted to understand and I needed for others to respect that I required some guidance.

I think sometimes we forget to relax. Last week, I was at Heritage Park with the girls. This lady kept staring at Adele. I was going to ask her what she was looking at. When we walked past her, she stopped me and told me that Adele was absolutely gorgeous. She told me that she was a perfect little package. What did this teach me? Stop assuming the worst. Stop looking for negativity. Stop thinking that the world is a big cruel place.

Please don’t come to the conclusion that I will tolerate abuse or hatred towards our children. I will always advocate for our children, I will fight for what is right and I will stand strong behind my beliefs, values and morals. There are some things that are inexcusable and offensive to myself and my family. I do not waiver when it comes to these three things.

1. The word “retarded”:  just don’t use it in any context.
2. The term “Down’s baby/child”: person-first language is a must for me.
3. Comments that are deliberately hurtful and malicious.

The days go by so quickly. The moments become distant memories. I don’t want to look back in 10 years and regret that I let worry and fear consume my days. There are mean people everywhere and there will be plenty who will come in and out of our lives, but there are so many amazing and kind people in the world who will love our children, who will support us and who exude happiness, love and light. Be the parent our children need us to be. Educate others, but do it with kindness and respect.

I want my children to see their mom as a person who’s making a positive difference in the world, one who does not let negativity consume our days, but a mom who welcomes others into our lives. Our children are a product of their environments. Slow down. Enjoy Italy, Holland and all the other places our children will take us.

A version of this post originally appeared on A Perfect Extra Chromosome.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the Lady Who Shook Her Head as My Kids With Special Needs Walked Behind Her

Do you remember me? I was the mom walking behind you yesterday. I know you wanted to turn around and stare. But you didn’t. I heard you ask your son, “Who’s behind us?” He turned around, looked at us and then told you it was three people. And then you shook your head.

Maybe you shook your head because he didn’t give you the full description of us that you were looking for. Maybe you shook your head because you think I’m a bad mom. Or maybe my girls were getting on your nerves. You might’ve been thinking that if I would just discipline my girls then they wouldn’t act like that. Maybe you were thinking that you would never allow your children to act like that in public. I know your thoughts because 10 years ago, I had those same thoughts. It was easy to have those thoughts when our older girls behaved perfectly every time we were in public. I’d never walked in the same shoes that the mom with the misbehaving kids has to walk in. But I wear those shoes now.

I wish you’d seen the strategy that we put into place earlier when we entered the building. You would’ve seen me come in with only one little girl. After I signed us in, you would’ve seen a handsome man enter with another little girl who looks a lot like the little girl standing beside me. You would’ve seen us walk up the hallway just far enough apart so that our girls couldn’t hit each other. Then you would’ve seen our girls hug and kiss us and say “I love you” before they left with their therapists. You would’ve heard a therapist talk about how sweet and loving our girls are. And you would’ve witnessed the amazing look of victory on my face because we made it into the building without making a scene.

I wish you’d seen what happened in the bathroom. I wish someone had seen what happened in the bathroom because I have no idea what happened. All I know is that I went into a stall and I told the girls to stand beside the sinks. And all of a sudden everything was out of control. They were hitting each other and yelling at each other. I wish you could’ve seen that I disciplined them and then I tried to convince them that they should be nice to each other. I wish you could’ve seen me take a deep breath as I pulled the bathroom door open. I wish you’d known that the only thought in my head was to just get out of the building as fast as we could.

I wish you could’ve seen the man walking in front of us when our girls continued to make a scene. He never turned around. He never shook his head. If he judged us, he did it privately. And then we rounded the corner and the girls got louder and more upset. And then we were behind you. I wish you’d realized that the three people behind you have feelings. I wish you’d realized that whispers, stares and shaking your head only make my life harder.

I don’t know if you were still there when I leaned down to sign us out. But it was at that moment that one of my sweethearts hit the other sweetheart on the back of the head with a coloring book. You might not have seen it, but there were many people who did. I was irritated and I was embarrassed. I probably turned about 50 shades of red. If you didn’t see it happen, perhaps you heard the chaos as you were walking to your car.

I wish you could’ve heard me tell my husband about everything that happened. I told him how much it hurt when you shook your head. I wish you knew how defeated I felt. And that I’ve cried many tears over the years because I just simply have no idea what to do. I wish you knew that we are doing the best that we can for our family. But sometimes we have bad days. Sometimes I feel like I can’t possibly do it anymore. And that’s how I was feeling yesterday when you shook your head.

I wish you could see these girls through my eyes. I wish they could touch your heart the way that they touch mine. They’ve been diagnosed with language disorder, articulation disorder, sensory processing disorder, coordination disorder and ADHD. They often giggle endlessly at something most people don’t even notice. They smile and laugh as they run around the yard chasing a butterfly. They get excited when the wind is blowing because flying a kite is one of their favorite things to do. Our girls have shown me how much joy there is in the simple things of life. They help me to see things I couldn’t see before. Every night I hear them say, “I love you, Mommy!” as I kiss them goodnight. Those words are the reason I’m able to keep going when I feel like I can’t take another step.

Next time you see a mom trying to help her kids, could you do something for me? Could you smile and say something kind? Kindness can change her world. If you don’t know what to say, could you show kindness by letting her go in front of you? Could you say a prayer for her?

And I would like to ask you to forgive me for being irritated with you for shaking your head. Because chances are that you walk in a pair of shoes that I don’t have to walk in. And I don’t understand your struggles any more than you understand mine.

Sincerely,

The mom who was having a really bad day yesterday

A version of this post originally appeared on Two Upside Down Turtles.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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