Friday, April 27, 2012

Why I Chose Autism by Katie Norman

People often ask “why” I chose to work with students with Autism.  My answer is:  I didn’t choose autism it chose me. 

As a student at the University of Kansas, I was studying biology for pre-med.  I always knew I wanted to work with children and to somehow make a difference in their lives.  At the time, I had never heard the word autism nor did I know anyone who had been diagnosed.  All I knew was I wanted to work with children. Early in my college education, I realized biology and chemistry were not for me.  Half way through my second year of college, I enrolled in a child development class and absolutely fell in love.  From there I started exploring some psychology classes.  It wasn’t until I changed majors from Biology to Human Development and Family Life/Psychology that I found my true calling.  I enrolled in some behavior modification classes and then had to pick an emphasis within my major.  I chose “Working with Students with Autism”.  I took courses that primarily focused on the autism spectrum.  I excelled in these courses and loved them. I enjoyed the readings, the assignments, and didn’t dread the tests. This was what I was supposed to be studying.
 It was then that I met my first student.  

Katie Norman with my son Isaac & his Autism Specialist, Mr. Todd.
 A foster grandmother had approached me in one of my classes. She needed some home support for her grandson with autism.  She asked me to meet him and work with him at home as well as take him into the community.  I had read about students with autism and ways to teach them but this was going to be a new challenge.  From the time we first met, I became a part of his family.  I worked with him several days a week after school.  Don’t get me wrong, he was a challenge for me and for his grandparents - both behaviorally and academically. However to watch the progress he made over time, made it all worth it.  It reinforced my belief that I was in a field I loved. I worked with him in the home setting from the time he was 8. He’s now 21 and I still keep in touch with his family.   

Although I taught this student a lot, he and his family taught me even more.  They taught me to love unconditionally, compassion, patience, and to never give up.

I graduated college, obtained my teaching certificate and a master’s degree. Then I started my career as an Early Childhood Autism Teacher.  I was in for what I thought of as the challenge of my life (up to that point).  I was a first year teacher opening up a new program with 6 students with autism and 3 peer models.  I knew how to do 1:1, but what was I going to do with 6?  It was also my first time managing classroom paras.  Yes, it was difficult at first, but it was one of the most rewarding times in my career.  I built a program for these students and got to watch them flourish first hand.  I was there writing their initial IEP‘s and talking their parents through what it would be like to send their babies to school for the first time.  I had to build trust and confidence with these parents.  I also had to be a shoulder for them to cry on for parents who recently received the diagnoses – and sometimes I cried to.  

There isn’t anything was more exciting than hearing a student’s first word or witnessing a first sign.  I videotaped these milestones so the parents wouldn’t miss out.  I witnessed many other first milestones - students using the potty for the first time, a student who could no more than sit for a portion of circle time could now lead circle time, a student who wouldn’t touch paint was now a master in art center.  These were the times that made smile.  Our moto was “Tiny steps to giant victories” and that is exactly what it was in my classroom. We celebrated each and every “tiny step”.

When I made the choice to leave the classroom—one of the hardest decisions ever—I put on a preschool graduation for my students.  At that time there were 8 identified students and 4 peer models.  The students participated in a circle time session with their parents and then was followed by a slide show of my class and students over the last two years.  There was not a dry eye in the room.  I was the worst.  I was saying goodbye to many of my first students who had come so far. Goodbye to my classroom and para educators.  Each and everyone one of these students, parents, and staff were a blessing to myself, to each other and together we learned a ton.  I will never forget my first students.  I still see some of them today as they are get ready to transition to middle school.  They have come so far. I am so proud of each and every one of them.

If you could work with people with disabilities, what area would you choose?

Katie Norman is an Autism Specialist for Olathe School District. She taught an autism preschool prior to becoming an autism specialist. She studied at University of Kansas for both her undergraduate degree and Master of Science in Special Education. She is currently taking course work through Florida Institute of Technology in Behavior Analysis. She loves her job, the students she work with, and the families she is able to support!

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