To the moon and beyond: Life as a teacher of children with autism

I have been teaching in a progressive play-based preschool for 5 years, and I’ve encountered children of various shapes, sizes, and abilities. During my first year, I did not quite expect that I would already be having differently-abled children in my class. Having little background about special education, I was extremely nervous. Naturally, I got confused and frustrated because I was at my wit’s end on several occasions. I just didn’t know how to help them.

As I progressed in my work, I came across terms such as 'red flags' and 'developmental milestones' that I needed embedded into my mind 24/7. With each passing month, quarter, and year, I have had to observe each child in my classroom and find out who among them may need to seek professional help. I needed to collect evidence like anecdotes, pictures, and videos, and speak to parents about what we see and who they can reach out to for consultation.

You can do all of that and more, but no amount of this can prepare you for welcoming a handful of students that are differently-abled to go along with 'regular' kids. You will find yourself running after the former when they leave the classroom or when they start climbing the tables and the shelves. There will be days where you’ll find yourself sitting with your colleagues with tears of exhaustion flowing from your eyes, saying to yourself, “I can’t take this anymore.”

It took years of tears, readings, and failures for me to understand that all that these children need is our genuine, unconditional love. The answer had been in front of me all along, but I was just so caught up with labels like 'special' and 'different' that I failed to see that all they want from us is our care and support. All I had to do was open my heart and see for myself that they are just like any other child.

My days with Stella

Stella was a student of mine back in 2017-2018 who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. She was a fun-loving, joyful, and affectionate girl who would greet others with a pleasant “Hi!” paired with a heartwarming hug. My conversations with Stella ranged from who her favorite pony was on My Little Pony to the trips she took with her parents. Stella was also an active girl who enjoyed playing outdoors and would even be caught doing a few yoga poses during class. To put it simply, Stella liked doing things a lot of other kids do.

My time as Stella’s teacher went by so fast. During the time we had together, I saw her use her curiosity to openly ask questions about the world around her. She would also show compassion to her other friends who were feeling down or sad by consoling them with her words or her signature hugs.

There were also times when she would be the one who’d need compassion and understanding. For instance, she would panic over hearing the mere mention of a song she strongly disliked. The moment she heard the actual song, she would begin to yell as if she were being tortured. Hearing Stella calling out for help as if the song was burning her ears challenged me a lot, because I really didn’t know what was going on. My then-partner and I would look at each other in confusion, wondering what it was about the song that made her feel that way. Whenever we would struggle understanding Stella’s actions, we sought the guidance of her amazing, hard-working parents.

Stella’s parents were outstanding partners because they were open to all our queries about their daughter. Figuring out how to best help Stella was a breeze because of her parents’ initiative and dedication to giving her the best life possible. Talking to them about how to better facilitate Stella’s interaction with her peers or how to navigate power struggles with her was easy for us, because they were also transparent about their struggles at home. They would keep lines open for our comments and questions and would also forward them to Stella’s team of therapists, which then made creating the necessary and appropriate adjustments and accommodations a lot easier. 

I have seen Stella grow from quietly reading books to co-narrating an entire short skit during our 2018 Christmas Program. Though I was only her teacher for a year, I still kept in touch with her teachers from this past school year about how much she has progressed while in our school’s care. Now, she is on her way to 1st grade in a prestigious private school equipped with facilities and a program that can accommodate her needs and allow her to flourish just like any other kid.

Making room at the table

It warms my heart seeing posts about people with autism working in malls and fastfood chains, finishing college, and even making headlines as lawyers and singers. News like this gives me hope that my students can excel regardless of their perceived 'disabilities,' because they are capable of becoming amazing individuals. The challenge for our society now is to make this the norm.

Growing up, I’d hear old schoolmates and even elders carelessly call someone 'autistic' as if it was a dagger to the heart. In media and television, you would see world leaders and public figures make fun of not just people with autism but people of different abilities. As a teacher, my heart hurts as much as my blood boils each time I see comments and videos of people on the autism spectrum being made fun of. If we are to make the world more inclusive, then we need to start educating each other on how to better accommodate the needs of people with autism.

All across the country, there could be a child with autism that needs help, but has little to no means to access it. We should continue to strive for the inclusion not only of people with autism, but people with all sorts of abilities through research and policy-making. I know for certain that the time will come when people with autism will become well-represented in different professions as well as in mainstream media. We must strive to make people of all abilities a normal part of our day-to-day lives, and contributing to its fruition is all the thanks I need. – 

Jolo Lagman teaches in a private preschool in Makati, where he has been for 4 years. He is also pursuing his Masters in Early Childhood Education at De La Salle University. When he’s not busy molding the minds and character of his students, he makes time to play video games, read, and watch cooking videos.