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When I Was Warned About Teaching Boys With Autism

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“Get ready! Are you sure you’re up for this? Do your doors lock? They bite, they scratch, they spit. Good luck getting help from home.”

Seven years ago, I took a teaching job at a school in my hometown. My job was to develop an autism classroom, primarily put into place because of two little boys. Twins. “Wild.” Both with autism, both nonverbal, both hyperactive.

That is what I remember most about beginning my career with Nehemiah and Jeremiah. These were not children preceded with, “Oh! You are going to love them. They are so sweet, they are so funny.” Instead I was told, “Get ready! Are you sure you’re up for this? Do your doors lock? They bite, they scratch, they spit. Good luck getting help from home.”

So I prepared. I had alarms put on the doors and arranged furniture to make it harder to escape. I removed staplers and picture frames and anything breakable from reach. I researched and planned.

What I could not have prepared for was how these two little boys would change my heart. How much better I would become because of them.

It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. I was bitten, I was scratched, I had countless breakouts of ringworm. I went home exhausted, without lunch, every day. I wore no jewelry and most days put my hair in a ponytail so it couldn’t be yanked on. I rearranged my class 15 times. I called on our OT and SLPs constantly for assistance and suggestions.

And I loved. Almost immediately I fell in love with the mischievous grins on these two little faces. I learned to dance to the music Jeremiah hummed and rhythms Nehemiah drummed. I learned to advocate for them — to fight for their opportunity to eat lunch in the lunchroom, go to PE with other classes and attend music and assemblies.

I wanted so badly for my boys to experience the sense of community I knew they deserved. To walk down the hall and have other teachers and students tell them, “Hello!” For people to realize when they were absent. And it did happen. Students began to ask questions, and teachers began to invite us to their classrooms for fun activities. Third-graders began asking their teachers to come read to my students. And I saw these two boys become loved.

After three years, it was time for me to move on, and I agonized over the decision to leave Nehemiah and Jeremiah. I had three other students I loved as well, but they would be fine. They had support systems. Their families had support systems. But what about my boys? Would another teacher love them the same? Would another teacher be able to build a rapport with their mom? Would she worry over them in the summer, and make sure they had groceries or bed sheets?

In the three and a half years since I left them, I’ve had opportunities to visit. I had chances to speak with their teachers and therapists and keep up with their progress. And I’ve talked about them constantly. I tell stories of the funny, sad and frustrating things they would do. When I close my eyes, I see Nehemiah looking at me with his head cocked, one eye open, one eye closed and his finger on the side of his nose. I see Jeremiah rocking back and forth, quietly humming whatever song we sang in our morning meeting. I hear their giggles and see their smiles. I can still feel the chokehold-grip of their precious hugs.

And then one morning, I woke up to learn my boys are no longer with us on Earth. They passed away recently. My heart shattered, and my tears seemed endless. But my initial despair was my fear that no one would mourn them or truly miss them like I would. But then my phone started ringing, and text messages began coming in. Teachers I worked with checking on me, crying with me and mourning the loss of two precious boys who made a difference. The lives of Nehemiah and Jeremiah mattered. They taught the teachers and students around them about acceptance. They taught us that everyone is lovable. My heart is so comforted in knowing that these boys will be mourned and missed. And remembered.

When I read paperwork for new students and feel the undercurrent of warnings like the ones I received for Nehemiah and Jeremiah, I make sure to open my heart extra wide for them. When a student comes into my classroom, no matter how difficult, I look for something in their personality that is lovable.

Originally published: November 18, 2015
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