It's back to school time and I am getting to know my new crop of students. I have known them now for almost 2 weeks and have already seen the tremendous potential they possess. I teach at several levels; high school dual-credit, college freshman and college sophomores. I teach 17 year olds and adults in their 50sand beyond. The students come from every socioeconomic class, race and culture. When I walk into class I find myself filing away the potential success of those in my keep. A parent returning to college after 20 years, a 17 year old with dreams of being a Lawyer, an 18 year old trying to juggle course work with campus activities – all are here to learn something from me. They bring with them a great deal of potential.
Potential – each student possesses it. An autistic student is no different. It takes a bit longer to find their strengths and their weaknesses, but I know the potential for learning is there, as is their potential to succeed and achieve their dreams. Autism used to be such a rare syndrome that people would look at my son more as a curiosity than a young mind to be opened. Teachers had to get to know him a bit, try various methods of teaching and ask a hundred questions before they realized just how much potential this quiet young man carried with him. As the numbers of autistic individuals increases in this country (now 1:70) many false stereotypes block the view of seeing their individual potential. A TV drama or series has an episode with an autistic child and the day after it airs everyone has become an expert. They feel pity. They do not see potential.
Autism is a spectrum disorder – which means each child may have some similarities, but each child is unique in their combination of abilities and disabilities. A spectrum disorder means that children do not look alike, act alike, or have the same emotional or mental capabilities. I wish everyone would not focus so much on the behaviors. Alas, I have resolved to have more patience; after all, it takes time to educate the masses. But what I would really like others to see is the child’spotential.
Every child can learn. Each can move forward, albeit, at a snails pace at times, but still the forward momentum is there. Potential is transformed into kinetic. When potential is expected you will see it. When potential is not expected, no one bothers to look. The diagnosis of Matt’s autism was followed by “You should put him in a home”. Why? He has so much potential! I know Matt has dreams and aspirations just waiting to be realized. I know. The doctors didn’t expect much forward momentum, so they never really looked for it. I, on the other hand, expected to see it and watched for it - daily. The first time he walked up steps alternating his feet. The first time his eyes caught mine. The first time he wrote his name. The first time he got an “A” in class. The first time he hit a ball. The first time he made a friend. Last spring, Matt took his first stroll by himself. This past summer, Matt constructed a platform bed for his room. All those tiny pieces of his potential revealed themselves over the years, gradually coalescing into the man he wants to be. All those flecks of what could be became entire glistening jewels of achievements and obstacles surmounted. Matt is living proof that there is much potential in an autistic child, just as there is with any child.
Many people do not realize their dreams. What happened to them along their life’s road that changed their drive toward their goal? What choices forced them to abandon their hopes of becoming more? As I said earlier, I teach individuals of all ages and from all walks of life. I know there is still potential in all of us that can be transformed into the realization of a dream and at any age. The autistic child is no different. The route may be longer and the hills may be steeper but there is really nothing stopping the forward momentum once the potential turns kinetic.
The first step is to acknowledge that the potential is there.