Years ago, when my daughter was in fourth grade, she met an amazing boy in her religious education class who helped spark her interest in becoming a special education teacher. To many, this boy seemed a bit odd as he had trouble socializing and interacting with his peers, as well as keeping up with the curriculum. Yet, this boy was sweet and always greeted my daughter with a smile, which made her naturally feel a connection with him despite what others might have thought of their friendship. Without realizing his impact, this youngster made a life-long impression on my daughter and her future.
As we commemorate National Autism Month with the theme, “Light It Up”, I am reminded that while many only see the negatives that go along with a diagnosis such as autism, there are so many more positives that can and should be in the spotlight. People with autism shine their lights more than is recognized.
In December, I began working with autistic students at a local elementary school. Through this experience, I have had the pleasure of supporting a bright fourth grade student who, despite daily struggles, also lights up the room when interacting with peers and working toward his daily academic goals. When we went to art class, his creativity really began to shine. I was wowed by this child’s ability to decide that he wants to create something and then make that creation come to fruition. Don’t have the right materials? He comes up with ideas for a good substitute or an even better version of the materials than he thought he needed. Glue gun not working to make the creation complete? No problem . . . ! He asks if we can sew the pieces together. For an entire week, he worked diligently during his down- time to sew various parts of his creation. During these sewing sessions, we talked about the project’s progress, reviewed lessons, read a variety of stories, and answered questions from numerous worksheets. In addition to learning to sew, a skill that will help him in the future, this focused sewing activity allowed him to have a goal and put him in a calm, relaxed state. To date, he has created a diorama of Saturn, a ZapFish, and a Sonic stuffy.
There’s also the young student who gets extra assistance with math every day. This girl shines every time she walks in the room with a smile so wide that one cannot help but smile back. When she sits in the “teacher’s chair” and we all pretend that she is in charge, her giggles are contagious. I so look forward to seeing this student at the end of the day as she shines her positive light and shares her joy with us. Another student, who when studying different types of renewable energy, was able to connect the ideas of potential and kinetic energy to the discussion without prompting. His passionate nature extends beyond academics – he is the first one to be concerned for his fellow students when they might be having a bad day. I can’t forget my first grade friends: the boy who, when he’s on a roll, appreciates a brief break either blowing bubbles or playing with toy trains as a reward for his hard work and a second student who amazes me with what he can do when he puts his mind to it during our writing sessions.
These are just a few examples of how these children shine their light each and every day and somehow manage to make my day brighter and more meaningful. Just like the special boy who years ago helped my daughter find her future passion, I hope that everyone encourages their friends and family members to always try to find the light that shines in others. It’s definitely worth it!
Michelle Weiss, a military spouse and mom of two, began her career in journalism and health care public relations, becoming a teacher in 2008.