Monday, September 28, 2015

The Real Experts

I came into this program knowing little more about autism than any other special educator.  I had studied autism in my college course work and even observed a few autism classrooms, but I had never had a student with an ASD diagnosis in my resource or behavior classrooms, and I had never worked as a professional with an adult diagnosed with ASD.  I quickly started having people tell me “you’re the expert”, and it made me feel like a big fake.  I was doing all that I could to learn as much as I could in a very short period of time.  I felt like I did all of the right things.  I read up on ASD, I consulted professionals that I felt were experts in the area; but when I began teaching the class for FSL participants, I realized that I still had a lot to learn.  Want to know what else I realized?  That my students are the real experts, and that none of the so called “autism experts”, unless diagnosed with autism themselves, will ever truly be an expert. 

One of the first things pointed out to me was my students’ dislike for person first language.  As a professional, I had been taught to always use person first language, and I’ve been teaching this in higher education for the past six years.  We’re supposed to say “a child with autism”.  It’s politically correct, right?  It’s putting the person in front of their disability and therefore not identifying them as their diagnosis.  Not according to my students.  They would like to be referred to as an “autistic person” or “autistic student”.  They feel that autism is part of who they are.  It’s a part of their identity.  One of them pointed out that no one says that they are a “person with whiteness” or “a person with blackness”.  It’s so true that it makes me feel quite ignorant that I simply followed what I had learned in text books and didn’t bother to ask an expert: someone who actually has autism! 

I am so excited about all that these individuals are going to teach me over the next year.  I have eight autism experts ready and available to educate me every Friday.  The one-hour course is designed for me to assist them in their transition to college, social and independence skills, and academic success, but it is so much more than that. Not only do they benefit from the curriculum, but they have been given a voice, and I can tell you that I’m listening.  I’m soaking it all in so that I can adjust the program as needed and provide what the experts, the real experts, feel that autistic students need to successfully complete a college degree.  These eight individuals may not realize it each week when they come to that Friday afternoon class, but they are going to impact the lives of so many people.  They have no idea how amazing they are, but my goal is to express that to them every chance I get. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

They've Captured My Heart

When first approached to take on this project by Dr. Jaime Taylor (then Interim Provost) and Andrew Shepard-Smith (Executive Director of Research and Sponsored Programs), I was excited to have been chosen to be a part of the process.  I had little understanding at the time of how much FSL would affect the lives of individuals in the Clarksville area and even less understanding of how it would affect my own life. 

I have felt for years that there is a great need for programs to assist students with disabilities in their transition after high school.  It disturbs me how little there is out there for students with disabilities once they leave the public school system.  Starting an autism program at APSU for students meeting the requirements for admissions is a very small step, but one in the right direction nonetheless.  It has already led to conversations in the community about developing other transition programs to meet a broader range of needs.  It is my hope to someday be able to work collaboratively with others to make a productive life after high school a reality for all adults with disabilities.  Luckily, there is no shortage of people in the Clarksville area who strive to do the same, and I foresee great things in our future. 

As I researched programs across the US dealing specifically with autism and higher education, I became excited about what we already have to offer at APSU even without a program.  We have a small campus, which embraces partnerships and strives for student success.  We have counseling services, career services, health services, an academic support center, and an office of disability services.  It was reassuring to know that these supports were already in place as a foundation for our new program. 

I was especially excited about working with disability services.  The Office of Disability Services at APSU offers a broad range of support for individuals with disabilities, but I was saddened by how many of those who would benefit from their services do not register with the office.  As a former special educator in the public K-12 system, I have seen first hand the heartache and embarrassment that often comes with having the label of disability.  It made me realize that one of the most important things that I can do for this program is to ensure that the participants are treated with dignity and feel that they are a part of molding a program that will help others who face the same struggles in the future. 

Now that we’ve been in school for a few weeks and I have met with the FSL participants in class on several occasions, I can say that they have already won my heart.  They are providing me with insight that I would not be able to get elsewhere, and frankly, they’re simply an amazing group of individuals.  I am truly blessed to have been chosen for this project, and my love for these students and the program grows everyday.  I’m eager to continue this journey that we’re taking together, and I know that with their help, we can build a truly amazing program.