These past couple of years I’ve been back in Illinois, I’ve been working with teenagers on the Autism spectrum, and let me tell you, every day is a new experience and every day has a learning curve. I must tell you that it is a perpetually arduous work-life but it is as arduous as it is rewarding. I am not going to say where I work however I will share my experiences and describe the atmosphere to the best of my ability. It has been an interesting two years and it has had its up and downs which is why this is my first post in a while.
This school is probably the best school for an individual on the autism spectrum if they need more one-on-one support and services. It is well-known for the therapeutic services for our students and participants which include Music, Social work, and Occupational therapy as well as having on-staff Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). I am always impressed and grateful for the resources with which we support our students. As I have stated, I have worked with this school for a little more than two years now and it has never gotten old when I have seen progression in my students. They are truly amazing. I started as a program assistant then after about a year, I was promoted to a Senior Program Assistant in probably one of the “hottest” classrooms at the school. I say “the hottest” due to the number of target behaviors that our students have and the level of severity of autism of my students. Six out of seven of my students are boys and all have various ways of how autism impacts them. There are several easier classrooms in the school that tend to have students who are more independent and higher-functioning. Target behaviors are behaviors that include self-injury, physical aggression, generalized hoarding, or even elopement that we are trying to shape to help them lead a more independent life. My supportive team also makes the days seem easier and not so lonely as they understand the in’s and out’s of working at this school.
Now, you have to understand that most of what these teens do is because their brains work differently than neurotypical humans i.e. auditory and language processing is harder for these individuals. Also, they were taught that “if I do this, I can get what I want.” So, that is where we come in. Some days are injury-free and other days, I have bruises up and down my arms or I have to go to urgent care for a head injury. If I am doing my job correctly which means using positive behavior supports, it is not often for head injuries to occur. I am not going to sugarcoat it: it is a ridiculously hard job and not for the faint of heart. I do a lot of self-care and require an infinite amount of stress management because I deal with a lot of anxiety that comes from the trauma of physical aggression. I make sure I work out at least two times a week so I feel like I am strong and release stress. There is a high turnover rate and currently, because of the pandemic and the job itself, we are in a staff shortage, which inevitably makes our jobs harder. You either love it or you are not meant to be there.
To answer the question that is going through your mind, I love it. It may well be the hardest job I have ever had but I love making a difference in my students’ lives. Maybe it is the caregiver that has been hardwired into my soul or I just love the challenges that are thrown at me every day. Maybe both. This job makes me alert and constantly on my toes and I’m not doing it right if I’m not. I have learned so much from working with kids on the spectrum. We have to press through our discomfort to get the students back on track multiple times a day which means we endure physical aggression and other behaviors, depending on the student but that’s where the BCBAs come in. BCBAs can shed light on why the individual is doing what they’re doing, to help diffuse the situation and make a plan to follow to shape a student’s behavior. A few of my students require a great deal of sensory input so we are spending the entire forty-five-minute period doing both movement and deep pressure activities. Occupational therapists make individual-based sensory diets that include both movement and deep pressure such as rocking on a rocking chair and a weighted activity like ball squishes or a medicine ball toss. A neurotypical person needs sensory input and output too, it just may look different like snuggling with your significant other, lifting weights, running two miles, or even limiting screen time.
Another thing that amazes me is music therapy and how it is one of the best strategies for anyone who is neurodivergent. I am not even going to try to describe how it helps scientifically because I don’t know but from what I have seen and the progress of my students who do music therapy once a week, it helps tremendously. Just like music helps everyone else, including myself. As I am writing this, I am realizing quite how much music helps my auditory processing as I was growing up and in my adult life. My language and auditory skills were not as progressed as other kids my age until I started playing violin and in an orchestra.
I have also realized throughout my employment, I feel like I can relate to my students on the spectrum because of my life experiences and how I am as a person. It has made me more self-aware and I have gained a multitude of skills with which I can grow both as a leader and a person.