Awareness and Education in Autism

“Work with the child’s strengths to overcome the weaknesses, and work within the autism, not against it, to overcome the developmental barriers.”― Frank Klein

I had the opportunity a few years ago to spend some time with a delightful young man who just happened to be autistic. I went into this knowing little about autism. I knew the medical side of the disorder and maybe a few facts.

I put my natural curiosity as a writer to work trying to understand his thought process. It took about 5 minutes for me to realize this was not really a special needs child but a child who had distinctive needs. I came to understand that autism is not about intellect or IQ, it is about communication and socialization. The problem was never that he couldn’t communicate when he needed to but that I lacked the skills to communicate with him.

When you hear horror stories, they are usually about someone far away. You feel bad for a minute or two and then move on. This week I learned about a story that hit closer to the heart. This tale of horror occurred in the town I have made my home for the last decade, Kissimmee, Florida.

Special needs teacher Lillian Gomez used hot sauce as a tool to deter autistic children from chewing on crayons.

I mentally put one of these tainted crayons into the hands of the young boy I had gone on vacation with and the image was heartbreaking. I then put the same crayon in my daughter’s hand when she was his age. She would have given that teacher a piece of her mind and then promptly told on her. That is what makes this story such a tragedy. Autistic children exist mentally on a different plane. They have the ability and intelligence to know something has happened to them, but maybe not the insight to know why.

There was remarkably little media coverage of this incident, but what does exist seems to infer Gomez had years of experience with special needs children. This made me wonder what it takes to be a special needs teacher dealing with autistic children in Osceola County. The Communications Office for the Osceola School District was very open with me about their qualifications requirements.

The standards were adequate, but not what I thought they would be. New teachers coming into the system did need formal education and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) endorsement. Some teachers were grandfathered into the program based on previous experience and given ASD endorsement by the State of Florida.

So what does all this mean? Is Lillian Gomez just a bad apple or are the standards for teachers in charge of autistic children too low? It is difficult to say. While the Department of Education was more than happy to discuss the requirements for ESE teachers, no one wanted to talk about Gomez. She is currently under suspension with termination pending. My guess is there is enough blame to go around.

Research indicates that educating autistic children is a complex process that requires experience and one-on-one care. Unfortunately, the need for qualified teachers in this field is growing exponentially. Currently, autism affects 1 in every 110 children. The next one might be your child or grandchild or niece or nephew. It is not enough to feel bad for a few minutes and then move on. As adults, it is our responsibility to advocate for children, especially if they cannot speak for themselves. Support Autism Awareness by giving your time or money to help improve the education of teachers, so the bad apples don’t slip through.

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