Finding My True Calling
Diane’s story. She is 55.
Most of my life I knew I wanted to teach special education to children with special needs. Over a 20-year career, I loved each year taught. I enjoyed each child I had in my classroom, even amongst the challenges, my students, staff and parents were the best!
To coin a probably overused cliché: I thrived on “making a difference.”
But, something was missing. I received children into my classroom that often had previous teachers, techniques and related services before they reached me. Although my teaching assistants and I scaffolded on the goals and behavior plans that other outstanding disciplines had set the previous school year, I started to feel I was missing a piece of the puzzle. I finally realized it was the history with these children. I wanted to be a part of the journey at the beginning, not somewhere in the middle.
This missing puzzle piece nagged me so much that in 2008, I returned to Ball State University and earned a masters degree in Special Education with certification in autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder can be life altering to families, but encouraging in another way as research is revealing more about the cause of autism and treatments available.
With my graduate degree in hand, I left teaching in the public schools and began to work as an early interventionist—also known as a Developmental Therapist or DT—for children with special needs from birth to the age of three through a federally funded program. I thought, “This was it! This is what I should have been doing for the past twenty years!”
As a DT, each day is different, depending on the needs of the children. I usually visit seven or eight of my kiddos per day. I drive to their house, knock on the family’s door, and am ushered into the child’s environment. For young children with autism, delivering services within their natural environment—wherever they spend the majority of their day—sets the bar for success. For most families, this is the home environment. For some, this could be with a caregiver at a day care or preschool facility.
I bring a large colorful bag with me into each family’s home. It is full of toys and materials designed to help facilitate the goals set for each child. Toys can be used to teach play skills and promote social engagement. Special books and puzzles are intended to encourage language skills. Sensory boxes are to help increase tolerance for a variety of texture mediums.
I enjoy working with parents and caregivers, they know their child the best. From their input I can create materials and strategies that we can work on during a visit and families are able to continue to work on for the rest of the week in a variety of different settings. For the child that is recognizing objects in pictures, we can work as a team to create a set of photos that a young one can choose in order to communicate a request for a cookie or a drink. This gives an alternative for a child to make choices while we continue to work on expressive vocabulary.
Studies have revealed that early intervention services can make a positive impact in the areas of communication and social skills with a young child demonstrating characteristics of autism. The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a screening tool that can be easily used for assessing young children under the age of 30 months to determine a risk for autism. Some health professionals will administer this assessment during pediatric visits with families when autism may be suspected. It would be ideal if all health care providers would include this as part of routine visits.
I do not have all the answers when it comes to working with toddlers with autism. I am so fortunate that I work with such a great team which always includes the families, parents and/or caregiver, but often will include speech, occupational and physical therapists. We can troubleshoot and strategize together to work towards the success of a child’s goals. The bonus of it all is when a small child with autism begins to connect with a family member over a shared activity, a social routine, a smile or hug.
Other bonuses are when the child comes to sit in a lap and begins to communicate or when I get to laugh, listen, and yes, shed a tear, with parents about the joys and concerns they have for their little ones.
Autism can often shake the core of a family when the diagnosis touches their child. It can be a difficult road and different for every family. Something we work on together is understanding that a parent’s precious little girl or boy is still that very same child as they were before the diagnosis was delivered.
It is a privilege to work with all kiddos and their families. It is much more than a job, it is my passion.
As told to Cathy Shouse by Diane.
Cathy Shouse is a freelance journalist, whose work has appeared in four Indiana newspapers and several magazines—including the Saturday Evening Post. She is the author of, Images of America: Fairmont.