|Sarah and her son.|
When I was in college, I needed to volunteer in a special needs classroom for a day as a class assignment. I was a little apprehensive because I had pretty much zero experience with non-typical kids. On the day of my assignment I parked my old Honda Accord on the street next to a worn two story building across the street from campus. I really didn’t know what to expect. The sign next to the road read Oakridge high school. I met up with others members from an art education class and headed for the main office. The secretary sent us to different classes as volunteers for the day.
The class I was sent to had five students. Their ages ranged from 14-17. They all had normal names and wore normal clothes. At first glance they looked like a group of normal American teenagers sitting around a large table. But they were anything but normal. They rocked back and forth, some hit their heads while others muttered strands of unintelligible words. All of them had a faraway look in their eye as though their souls we’re trapped deep inside. They were autistic. Not high on the spectrum but so deep they hardly acknowledged my existence. The day ended with a school wide sock hop that consisted of a gathering of kids with a variety of syndromes. Teachers rocked wheel chairs back and forth, and I jumped up and down over exerting myself trying to get just one kid to move.
The next day my classmates spoke about how sad it was, how hard it was to look at some of the student deformities, and even how they would not want to teach them. But I couldn’t wait to go back. I started volunteering on a regular basis, and then moved to a different class room as a part-time TA. I met a kid who could organize anything. I’m even guilty of deliberately messing up stuff just to keep him busy. I spent mornings taking kids out in the community. I even went to McDonald’s and helped the kids clean tables as part of work program. At the end of the year, I was on a committee to decorate their prom.
A lot of the kids didn’t recognize me from day to day but I kept coming back. It was hard but I felt I needed to be there. I wanted to see them smile back at me. I wanted a sign that I was helping but I got nothing in return. I went back and forth about changing my major, even though I was almost done. I left on church service mission, but when I returned, I jumped back in. Nothing in the classrooms fit my schedule, so I became a lunch aide just a few hours a week, but it was enough. I loved these kids who could not reciprocate. I worked there until the school changed locations and I could not follow.
On the last day, I remember leaving the parking lot and thinking there had to be a reason I was pulled toward these kids, given three years of my life to them. I felt certain I would draw on the experience that it hadn’t been for nothing.
Two years later I gave birth to a child with Neurofibromatosis. It’s not Autism, but I use a lot of skills and patience I learned from my time at the special need high school. I draw on my experience to get through therapy sessions and IEP meetings. My son goes to a special needs preschool where his best friends are kids on the spectrum because they don’t seem to notice he is different.
Autism has touched my life. Serving those with autism has made me a better person. And autism has given back to me through my son. I will always have a special place in my heart for those who are a little different.
Have you had a teaching or volunteer experience with someone with autism? If so, how did they touch your life?
You can learn more about Sarah on her blog.