Autism Independence

By Suzanne Oshinsky

After receiving my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree I was teaching art courses to students K-12. Depending on the school’s resources and the age of the students materials ranged from paper and pencils to video equipment.

In 2006 I was invited to teach an art course at a special education school at Mission PAU in the San Gabriel Valley. I met their regular instructor Phil prior to teaching the class and he informed me they were physically handicapped.

That was the extent of the limitations he told me about his students. The one other fact he said was that they were post high school. Ages ranging from 18-22, 22 being the oldest since services were terminated at that age.

Based off the description Phil had given me of his class I came prepared with a syllabi that would be appropriate with the older students.

What he had told me was very misleading, or maybe I was just uninformed with the vocabulary he was using. Their skill sets were varied. Some were autistic, some had down syndrome, some had dual diagnosis, others I can’t remember what their diagnosis were but they weren’t what I had imagined when he used the label physically handicapped. Some of these adults spoke, some could not, others were able to walk around the classroom and acquire items they wanted. I remember one who was confined to a wheelchair incapable of moving or talking on his own.

I was not prepared for this and had to abandon any ideas I had on what we were going to do. I look back on this and I imagine Phil wanted me come without any preconceived notions of what his students abilities were. I remember in our first meeting when we were discussing what his students interests were he bragged that they used the woodshop to make items. That is probably true of some his students but definitely not all, especially if they were unassisted.

Only after having stepped into Phil’s classroom to meet his students did I begin to think about the minor details he revealed about his class. The most obvious thing I overlooked was their age. It didn’t dawn on me to think about the fact that I wasn’t at a college or junior college teaching 18-22 years olds. What kind of student would still be in school at 18 years of age and not be in college?

The schooling that Phil’s students were receiving was something called transition services. Transition services are classes that help adults with disabilities become as independent as possible. Bob, Phil’s highest functioning student is somewhere on the autism spectrum. He would leave class everyday and go to work at his job for a few hours. It was a menial task but Bob enjoyed it, he liked the independence he had and would tell me about what he did there.

Of course most things parents read about autism is how to help your child. What do you do with your child once they are an adult? Most people who become parents think there is an expiration date to parenting, or at least the involvement lessons. Unfortunately that’s not the case with a child who has learning disabilities.

The hope we have for a child that has autism is recovery but that’s not always what happens. The best thing after that is providing them with tools that will help them have a fulfilling and meaningful life as the grow, which includes having as much independence as possible. My experience teaching in Phil's classroom taught me that the milestones were different for everyone, but it's meaning remained the same. Each skill learned is a step toward independence.

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