Thursday, June 16, 2011

Our Puzzle Pieces Fit...

I've worked with kids since 1994.  I've met hundreds of children, scores of parents, many siblings, and a host of extended family members.

I've met and worked with kids who come from a plethora of backgrounds, each having their distinctive personality.  I've seen kids grow from age 5 to age 12 (from my daycare days).  I've worked with silly kids (which is most of them) and talented kids.  I've worked with kids who are simply just growing up in our society and kids who have family struggles.  I've worked with kids who have seen and experienced tragedies in their lives.  I've worked with kids who have physical and mental struggles.  I've worked alongside of kids who are extremely gifted. 

Kids are great.

I've seen a lot of different perspectives when it comes to kids.

I have also had the privilege to work with kids diagnosed with Autism.  One in particular comes rushing to the forefront of my mind.  I think of him often.  His name is Robert.  He must be in his early twenties by now.  I knew him when he was in 5th grade.

I had just completed my Master's Degree in Elementary Education.  That summer I found a job as a teacher's assistant for a 5th grade child diagnosed with Autism.  I knew nothing of the condition except what I had learned as an undergrad studying psychology (my BA degree).  Very general knowledge.

So I read. And I read some more.  And I read some more.  The school district I worked for was wise enough to have me start tutoring Robert during the summer, before school started, so we could get to know one another and I could develop a teaching strategy for him.

The district office we met at each morning was a 15 minute bike ride for me, which I did every morning in the warm summer months.  Each day Robert and I worked.  We worked at getting to know one another.  He was a fascinating, brilliant young man.  We worked at the basics of reading, writing and math.  His autism made it difficult for him to communicate with words...we had to find a way to get the ideas and concepts across to him.  

We had to find a way to make the "puzzle pieces" fit for Robert.

Through trial and error, Robert and I developed a system over the course of the summer.  A system of drawings, manipulatives, mutual respect, and humor that allowed me to teach him and him to learn.  As I look back I realize that he also taught me and it was I who learned.  In fact, we both were teacher and student.

Robert taught me that a diagnosis of anything does not mean you stop living.  He enjoyed all he had.  He loved his drawings, he loved his play money, he loved running outside.  He loved his classmates and they loved him.  He formed a relationship with me and found humor in our days.  He showed me when he was angry, and when he was proud.

Robert taught me that as a teacher I will encounter different learning styles from every student I meet, and that I must be prepared to "find the way to their brain" help them put the "puzzle" together.

I think of Robert often.  I remember that he always wanted the lights turned off...I remember that he loved monkeys...

I remember how he looked at me as I spoke to him about something new...his eyes squinted a bit and his head leaned to one side...intently looking at me, then repeating my words the best he could.  We moved from language to activity and through determination he learned what I set out for him to learn...he was fascinating.

Of course, I didn't do this alone.  I had the help of the Special Education Team, the classroom teacher and most importantly, Robert's classmates...they loved and supported him through all his school years...they knew him best.  It's amazing what a group of people can do to benefit one person...

On June 26, my wife, three children and I will be walking to support the Little Friends Inc. whose efforts help and provide assistance to kids and adults diagnosed with autism.  To help them fit their "puzzle pieces" together.

We have teamed up with them through "Step Up for Autism".  

We have designed a Mama Bracelet called the "Autism Awareness Bracelet" that carries a 30% of profits donation to the team.

We'll walk on June 26.  We'll walk for all the kids and adults that have been diagnosed with autism.

I wonder what Robert is doing right now.  I wonder if the things I taught him helped him grow into an independent man.

I wonder if maybe I'll see him at the walk?  

I did my best with Robert...that's all I could ask of myself.  He did his best too.  He was a pleasure and a joy to teach and to learn from.

I hope the puzzle pieces of his life continue to fit together.

Mama Bracelets' "Autism Awareness Bracelet"

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