The profession I ultimately chose was motivated by a desire to help individuals with autism succeed and thrive. As a child, my parents were told that my path in life would be limited. Throughout my childhood I proved many people wrong. Many years later my mother saw the psychiatrist who said I would be lucky to have a menial job. During this period I had completed a Masters in special education. In that moment my mother wanted her to know that her son defied the odds.
Too often, individuals with autism are defined by what challenges they face, not by their strengths or potential. Countless times in the 16 years that I have taught students with autism educators have underestimated many of my students. A few years ago, I had a student who entered middle school at a second grade reading level. In a relatively short period of time (a little more than two years) he was able to comprehend texts on grade level. In fact, He is in an advanced science class and most of the rest of his courses are fully mainstream. This young man is an immense inspiration to me. His drive and perseverance is much to be admired.
For several years, as a teacher I kept my autism a secret. A mentor of mine warned me that there would be individuals in education that would be hostile towards someone like me. In my mind, I thought that it was an incredulous concept. When I came out with my autism, it was for my students. It was important to me that they knew that they would have someone who has walked in their shoes and can serve as a reminder that they can succeed. When students enter my class I tell them that I will push them, be there for them, and prove that success is something that is not just an illusion. The only thing I asked them to promise if they want to swear at me just keep it in their heads.
Unfortunately, my mentor’s words came to pass. A few years ago, I was at a school that did not have an open attitude towards individuals with autism. Several colleagues dealt with me in a prejudicial manner. They did not treat me as an equal. As an educator, I was treated with disrespect by several teachers and insulted. One day, I was told by one “to quit acting so autistic”. When I tried to address the issue I was told it was a joke, it wasn’t! In fact, I was put in a very tough class in the hope I would quit. My wife’s response was they did not know how stubborn and obstinate I am. She was right! I did not quit and waited to go work at a school that would accept me for me.
For me, teaching students with autism is my raison d’etre. Being able to see my students grow and achieve as students and people. Constantly, I am reminded of the dire employment outcomes for individuals with autism. 80% is a number that does not have be the reality. Each day I do my part to help the young people I teach develop the academic, social, emotional and coping skills to strengthen foundation needed for success. For transition to be successful it has to be very gradual, practical and methodical. I will do my part to defy the odds.
John Miller is a member of the Autism Society’s Panel of People on the Spectrum of Autism
In addition to his many years as a teacher and program consultant John sits on the Florida board of the Autism Society and Florida Atlantic University CARD Constituency Committee. His book Decoding Dating received the Dr. Temple Grandin Award for Outstanding Literary Work of the Year.