At IDEA House, we do things differently. As a result, our students are observably “different.” You could pick out an IDEA House student in a crowd of neurotypical kids. You would notice one of “our kids” right away. You may think I am speaking of the way their Autism makes them different, but I am not. I am speaking of the way their character makes them stand out.
I taught in public schools for many years. I frequently visit schools for IEP or advocacy meetings. I have walked the halls and been present at times of class changes and dismissals. From elementary age on up, the hallways of a school are a great place to observe the true “Lifestyles of the Young and Foolish.” Much of what I have seen left me feeling sad.
Name calling, pushing, running, swearing, and a whole lot of teasing are the first things I always notice. I see the less popular kids staying to the side of the hallway traffic, usually trying their best to remain unnoticed. I see a group of popular kids laughing at a student who has dropped her books. I see other students taking selfies or texting on their $500.00 iPhones. What is noticeably absent is any obvious signs of kindness, friendship, or respect for the teachers they zoom past. I think to myself, “The kids at IDEA House would never behave this way,” and I am so proud of that fact.
When the students arrive at IDEA House in the morning, they walk in with a smile. They greet each other! They say hello to the teachers. The younger students almost always give hugs. They remove their shoes, hang up their coats, and place their lunches in the refrigerator in an orderly fashion. They are patient until it is their turn. They say “strange” things... like “Thank you,” and “Please.”
After meal times, the students clean up their messes. At the end of the day, they all have assigned chores. They work and behave like a family; each student truly caring about the welfare of the whole group.
In math class the other day, one of my students was becoming increasingly agitated as she tried to work through some difficult long division. As a result, she was short and even a bit unkind to one of the younger students in the class. I prompted her and reminded her to be respectful to her classmate. She continued to work with some seriously heavy sighs and some glaring looks at the younger student (who was cruising through the tough math work.) I turned my back for a moment to grab an eraser. When I turned back around, I almost could not believe what I saw.
This younger student was leaning over the girl’s shoulder and very patiently talking her through the long division process, step by step. He didn’t choose to “fight fire with fire.” He didn’t even choose to simply ignore her glaring envy. Instead, he reached out to her in empathy and true friendship. When she got her problems correct, he patted her on the back and praised her hard work.
I said I “almost could not believe what I saw.” I take that back. I was not surprised in the slightest. I see these kinds of heartwarming moments every single day. I witness older students acting as role models for the younger ones. I see students offering to help teachers carry heavy books or to clean up a work area. I see table manners (no one at IDEA House begins their meal until all students have been seated and have their food.) I hear students complimenting and encouraging each other. I see tolerance, patience, acceptance, and respect. I see love.
That is what makes an IDEA House kid stand out in a crowd. The love and support they receive every day and the pride in their authentic accomplishments creates a certain aura around our kids that cannot be missed. They truly begin to radiate confidence and positive energy. In turn, they reach out to share that glow with everyone around them. If a “Battle of the Bands” type of contest existed, based solely upon the quality of students’ characters, I would put our group of kids up against any neurotypical group and know, without a doubt, they would be declared the champions.
Ann: Autism vs. Neurotypical classroom
When I walk into the classroom at IDEA House, I will tell you what I see as a teacher. I have been in classrooms, as a student and as a parent, in the public schools and I can tell you...IDEA House ROCKS above anything I have ever witnessed in any other school setting.
I teach social studies and I can tell you what I experience, in a day. Kids. Not just any kids. Kids who are willing and eager to learn. Kids who want to please. Kids who are polite. Kids who help their fellow peers. Kids who do not bully. Kids who are patient. Kids who LOVE and connect and feel deeply. I see sensitivity. I see cooperation in a group and tolerance of all!
At IDEA House, we literally have the spectrum of Autism. There is not anyone in our school that feels more or less than anyone else. There is not a person that feels that they cannot be who they really are, in a room full of their peers.
Authenticity is encouraged. Being oneself is admired. The older kids mentor the younger while the younger almost idolize the older group. We are a hands-on school. The kids learn chores in a household setting. The older kids partner with a younger kid and they work as a group. What I love, is no one talks down to anyone. All that is seen is respect and a willingness to help and listen, in each of the paired groups.
One student didn’t understand a chore. One of our students, who has been with us for quite awhile, took the other student and visually acted the chore out to help him understand. A courtesy and respect that was shown him, when he was newer.
One thing we get a lot at IDEA House, is truth. There is not a lot of guessing with kids with Autism. They tell you exactly what they think and feel. Do you like this assignment? No, but I’ll do it.
“I know. I was wrong. I was mean. I did a bad thing,” One student said five seconds after doing something he shouldn’t have. These are the types of behaviors that I see as a teacher.
Our kids keep us in tears. I don’t mean sad tears, either. The kind of tears that one gets from laughing too hard or from warmth. Kids with Autism want a person to trust and connect with and once that trust is established, they will begin to thrive. Kids who have had bad experiences in other schools and have trust issues have a hard time learning. Once a child enters IDEA House, I give them a couple of weeks for trust to be established and growth occurs, very quickly, after that.
I see kids who understand what it means to have a disability. They understand what it is like to be like the others in the classroom. Discussion is more frequent than what one would expect. They very much want to converse with their peers, laugh, and do “pranks,” as one of our students loves to say.
I have been in enough neurotypical classrooms to know that I have witnessed bullying, disrespect, name calling, and a lot of unwillingness to listen or learn. I would take any of our classes and put them against any neurotypical class and I guarantee our classes would show a great deal more of respect, love, and tolerance.
“I know what it feels like to be bullied,” one student said. “I am loved at IDEA House. Everyone treats me good here.” This same student came in, months ago, and didn't trust a soul. He didn’t want to listen or respect anyone because he was not respected in his past schools. Now, he loves everyone and is filled with hugs. He is learning above his grade level and helps teachers ‘tidy’ up the classroom, just because he wants to help.
This is Autism. Sometimes, Autism gets a raw deal. The media portrays Autism in the negative. What I see when I walk into my social studies classroom is kids willing to talk current events, politics, and history. Their smiles shine through as they learn.
One of the best compliments I could have been given was from a student, very recently. He was asked who helps him the most, at school. Mrs. Kagarise. He was to write down why. Because she gives me the answers, he wrote.
I about laughed. Right after, I had him in class. I asked question after question. He knew every answer. I said to this student, “I am not giving you the answers. I taught you and now you know them.” He smiled at me. “You tricked me,” he smiled.
Yes! I gave him the answers. He was FINALLY learning what he could not understand in another school setting. You simply, my dear student, are learning!!
“But you tricked me to know the answers,” he said. Yep! And I think the real trick is you are becoming the most responsible, respectful, hard working child. Shhhh. Don’t tell him.