On April 2nd, the world celebrated Autism Awareness Day. A Catholic priest, Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC told the social media world that he has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
As a father to two sons with autism, my heart as my sons and other Catholics with autism have a role model, advocate, and witness to be a voice on spreading awareness about ASD.
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communications, as well as by unique strength and differences. As science progressively gets diagnosing individuals our awareness of autism continues to develop and today more than ever, autism spectrum disorder contains as much variance as color wavelengths in the rainbow. Why am I talking about this? Isn’t autism a hot-buttoned word? Why should you care about this topic?
These are all valid questions and concerns. What I can provide is my experiences, albeit limited with autism spectrum disorder. I will use my practical experience with my son who was diagnosed to be on the spectrum in summer 2016, and my experience in teaching students with special needs. Here I hope to share the joy autism provided (through my students) and continues to provide!
Teaching Students with Autism
Lack of interest in class and little to no eye contact was normal for my students that I taught in my sophomore Old and New Testament Scripture classes. Help from both my wife and the special education educators at my school made day to day interactions easier for me and allowed me to better understand my students’ situation. Despite the challenges of teaching students with autism spectrum disorder, joy and strengths become apparent.
a. Questioning: As the year progressed my students learned my teaching style and knew that I enjoyed questions to generate critical thinking. One student in particular who had Asperger’s Syndrome- which is on the autism spectrum, had a penchant for asking a myriad of questions. While some teachers may viewed this as an interrogation, I welcomed my student’s curiosity. All of his questions opened up doorways for discussion. His thinking outside the box was quite beautiful and I wished I thanked him more often for his participation.
b. Clarity: Students that I taught on the autism spectrum had an ability to ask crystal clear, point-blank questions that their peers either failed to recognize or maybe were too self-conscience to ask. I respect that ability to be clear and forthright
c. Honesty: Similar to the joy of being clear, my two students with Asperger’s Syndrome were honest. They made me aware when my lesson was boring or if I needed a better handle on classroom management. At first, I was little hurt by the seeming callousness of their words. It was not after learning more about autism spectrum disorder that I saw the joy in having honesty as a natural inkling. Whenever I doubted my teaching on a tough day, my students on the spectrum assured me I was doing a great job—that reassurance acted as a balm to remedy me through rough days and weeks of teaching!
Raising Children with Autism
Along with my experience of joys teaching high school students on the autism spectrum is my involvement with my son who is five years old and diagnosed last year. Below are the following hidden joys of autism I discovered as a father.
a. Incredible Memory: My son remembers things he did as a 1 and 2 year old. He is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about lots of topics: animals, dinosaurs, and ninjas to name a few!
b. Beautiful Mind: My wife and I knew we had a special child when our son was speaking in full sentences and knew his alphabet at 15 months. He even used complex sentences complete with subordinating clauses! I am blessed with a child who has language ability many grade levels above his age and he has recently learned and practiced subtraction with double digits numbers on his own.
c. Inconsistencies Noticed: My son is detail oriented and he is quick to remind me of whenever something seems out of place with our daily routine or activity. While some days his frequent corrections bog us down overall this ability to recognize inconsistencies in both life events and logic with serve him well in the future.
Kaleidoscopes took on a new meaning since I taught high school students and my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The ever-changing images and panoply for hues remind me that despite the daily challenges my students and my son face with having autism, they bring to the world a diversity that colors the world in truly indescribable and joyful ways! I encourage you to discover a kaleidoscope moment today.