As much as I loved this second year of my teaching career, it wasn't without it's challenges. The students in my class, ranging in age from 13 to 21, had a variety of disabilities, some of them with multiple disorders. But one student I had seemed to not have the disorder she was labeled with.
This young woman was said to be hearing impaired. Indeed she wore two hearing aids and had been aided since she was a very young child. However, even though she had been taught sign language, and that was her primary method of communication, she never seemed to initiate communication on her own. In fact, if you started signing to her, she would just sign the same thing back to you, at the same time. In this respect, she reminded me more of someone with autism, someone who was echoic; that is, someone who repeated back whatever you said. Although I was still relatively new to the special education field, I had met and worked with a number of young children and adults with autism. Most of them that had language, displayed a certain amount of echoic behaviors. So I was curious: could this young lady have been misdiagnosed all of these years? Could she actually hear? I tried on several occasions calling her name when she was in the back of the classroom and I was in the front. I called it in a normal voice; not too loud or too soft. The result? Every time she looked up and at me! I decided that I would meet with her mother and discuss what I had witnessed and what I thought might be going on.
As I was planning to set this meeting up, an event happened that made me frustrated and extremely unhappy. This young woman's bus dropped her off early every day. The bus was so early, that it arrived even before I got to school which was at least 45 minutes ahead of the start of the school day. Well on this one particular day, I arrived shortly after her bus dropped her off. I could see her waiting by the door to the classroom and she was surrounded by several eighth and ninth grade boys. They were all laughing and making rude gestures to her, barking like a dog, and worse. And what was she doing? She was imitating these and sobbing, tears running down her cheeks. Did this make them stop? No. These boys were like a pack of dogs that had their prey and were enjoying toying with it. I can't even tell you how angry I was! I marched down there and took the girl into my classroom and tried to calm her down and let her know she was safe. When my paraprofessional arrived, I left her in her care and went straight to the principal. I knew who a couple of the students were and that was enough for him to figure out who the rest of the offenders were.
Although this behavior did not surprise me, and in fact it unfortunately only reinforced what I thought about junior high school students; what happened next did. As word got around about what happened, the leaders of the freshman class came to me and wanted to apologize for the behaviors of that few from their group. They wanted to somehow make up for this unfortunate incident and soon I had several ninth grade students volunteering daily in my classroom! They also asked if they could hold an assembly to help educate all of the students by explaining more about who the students in my class were and why they need additional support and different ways to learn. I have never forgotten this kindness on the heels of such a horrible, humiliating experience. It allowed me to see that redemption is always possible.
And what about the young woman? Well, I did meet with her mother and after our conversation, we took her down to the University of Washington's Child Development and Mental Retardation Center (CDMRC). As part of her evaluation, they did agree that autism was most likely the primary disorder. I don't know what happened after that as the next year, my husband and I moved to Olympia. But I like to imagine that a proper diagnosis may well have helped in her future interventions!