I Needed an Introduction to Autism Long Before My Son’s Diagnosis

I was a teenager working my very first job. I was a child care attendant at a little mom and pop fitness center, and I had never heard of autism. To be fair, this was over 20 years ago (yes, I admit it), and I lived in a pretty small town. I really liked my job. I loved the kids, and the time limit was only an hour and a half. I could handle any kid for an hour and a half. Then came Sam.

When Sam’s mother walked through the door I knew I was in for a very long 90 minutes. Along with Sam came both an older brother and an infant. Sam’s brother, David, would always make me laugh. He was charming and always tucked his sweatpants into his socks. The infant, Max, did as infants do. Sam was a handsome boy with beautiful blond locks who would never look me in the eye.

The child care area consisted of two small rooms. Sometimes that second room would have to belong to Sam. We split the kids up — the other attendant would take the smallest kids and I would take the big ones. Sam wasn’t violent, he just didn’t seem to know his own strength, which, for a 4-year-old, was impressive. He would pace back and forth, and if a child was in his path, he would simply mow the child over. I knew he wasn’t mean. I wanted so badly for the other kids to understand that, but every time it was the same. Sometimes we had to call down to his mother to pick up early if he was having a bad day. She never seemed mad, just… defeated. Sometimes Sam would look out the window and have a little smile. I would stand next to him and look, too, wondering what he saw. I wanted so badly to connect with him; I could only imagine how his mother felt.

About 15 years later, my son was diagnosed with autism. I wondered if Sam might have had autism or some other disability, too.

After working at the fitness center for years, I got my associate teacher certification to teach preschool. I taught for years before I had my son. Sometimes I would come across other children who would not look me in the eye. Maybe they would pace or hum. But I had still never heard one word about autism or other disabilities in all those hours in class. The only course I got was the crash course that came along with getting a medical report.

Years later, I took a class at the local college. It was called “Exceptional Needs,” and it covered many different disabilities. It was considered an elective and was only offered every other semester. I needed that class. I needed it long before my son’s diagnosis. I needed it long before teaching.

Learning about children with disabilities should not be an elective. As an early childhood educator, you may be the first teacher a child with a disability will have. They deserve a teacher who can identify a need. Teachers need tools to help the other children understand a classmate’s behavior, because those students will go on. Some children with disabilities will become integrated, and their peers will grow up. They might have children. Those children might have autism or other disabilities. Their crash course should not come with a medical report.

Sam would be a grown man now. I don’t know anything about him. However, I do think about him, particularly when I hear my name over the loudspeaker at the gym.

Follow this journey on RaisingJedi and the RaisingJedi Facebook page.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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