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.