As Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, Cate Hudtloff shares insight into the life of her son, Jack, and the pieces of the puzzle that help Jack succeed. He is an amazing individual who is constantly learning, and his love of life brings joy to so many people.
Jumping Jack Theater, a children's theater company in Pittsburgh, PA, creates original works for audiences that benefit from sensory and autism-friendly strategies.
Jumping Jack Theater strives to connect with Autistic audiences and the autism community in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment.
This year for the first time I participated in the second annual “Little Feet Meet” Special Olympics event. The event held at Albemarle High School brought together children with and without disabilities to participate in a day of Olympic events, team building and overall fun. I was lucky enough to attend this year with a group of students that I work with weekly on a variety of things such as language and social skills. Each of my students was partnered up with a fifth grade buddy that would help guide and support them throughout the event.
Before we even left the school building, I was touched to see how attentive and kind the fifth graders were to my students. The fifth graders of our school and a third grade class even surprised us before we left with posters and cheered us on in the school auditorium. Once we got to Albemarle High School, I continued to be blown away with how inclusive and welcoming the environment of the entire event was. What was also amazing was that our entire fifth grade came out to this event with banners and noisemakers in the bleachers to support our athletes. I was so proud of our fifth graders and grateful to fifth grade teachers for promoting such a sense of community and support by coming out to watch the events this day.
Things only got better once the races began. Each of my students and their buddies were lined up at the start line ready to go. Once they began to run, it was amazing to see that all of my students and their buddies stayed together as they raced. I have one little guy who is non-verbal and not the most athletic. However, when he was with his buddy, he had the BEST running form of anyone and completed that race with no difficulty. I was happy to see children just being children and having fun with no expectations or limitations being placed on them. That theme continued throughout the event as my students and their buddies worked together to play with the giant parachutes, compete in throwing and jumping events, and soccer. There was not a moment that passed in which my students were not with their buddies having a great time.
On our way back to school one of the fifth grade buddies commented, “So that’s it? Will we get to practice or come back?” That comment let me know that Little Feet Meet was successful in its goal, which is to bring together children regardless of their abilities to promote inclusion. I knew that my students had a great time but it made me tear up to hear the fifth grade buddies talk about all of the fun that they had and the new friendships they made. I wish that more opportunities like Little Feet Meet existed throughout the school year because it’s events like that that truly make a difference and teach children that while indeed we are all “different” that’s OKAY. I think Little Feet Meet taught students that it’s okay to accept differences and not to be afraid of the child who flaps his arms as he walks. It’s okay to speak to the child who is non-verbal but lights up when given a smile. Weeks after the event, I can hear those fifth grade buddies in the hallway saying hi, or giving high fives to my students. It’s the simple things like that, which remind me why I love my job and the special little friends that I get to work with everyday.
Sadai is a Speech-Language Pathologist who has been with Albemarle County Public Schools for almost 4 years.
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.
Sometimes you have to get creative when dealing with people who might not be as verbal as you'd like them to be. As the mother in this film says, "Not being able to speak isn't the same as not having something to say." Pretty powerful stuff. And well worth the watch.
At the end of the day, I love looking back and reflecting on some really great stuff that I get to experience every day as an autism teacher. It’s one of the best parts of my job. Great things happen all the time. Little, great things. There is always something to celebrate.
My students are amazing. They work harder than anyone I know. Sure there are obstacles and setbacks. But they continue to push through, overcome, and do great things. Always.
Yesterday was one of those days where my heart was so full of pride for one of my students. His story inspired today’s lunch note sketch.
Meet Tony. He is smart, funny, creative, and kind. This kiddo has taught me that there is more than one right way to do most things. He is a problem solver. If he doesn’t have what he needs – he makes it. Need to know about dinosaurs? He’s your man! He has a quiet sense of humor, but can really get the giggles when watching silly kitten videos or looking at pictures of animals wearing crazy hats. He loves to share, and is quick to offer his teachers a cookie (or pickle) from his snack! The other students in my classroom look up to him. They care about him, and he cares about them. Not every day is a good day for Tony, but he comes back to school each day and tries his best. Sometimes it’s hard, but we’re learning about Tony and he’s learning to trust us, and together we’re making it through each day.
Yesterday was the mile run. Tony isn’t the biggest fan of running. In fact, I am pretty sure he despises it. But there we were walking toward the track to meet his classmates as they got ready to run the mile. I started to put my things down in the grass in preparation to run along with him, but his PE teacher looked at me and said, “You can’t run in those shoes! He’s got this! He’ll be fine!” And fine he was. He ran all 5 laps. Here he is on the cool down lap, talking to his friends.
I was so proud of him. I’m proud of him every day, but especially yesterday. He faced this challenge head on, and he gave it his all. Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try. He did it. He did a great thing.