Newswise — Today, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day, a day dedicated to shining a light on a condition that affects about one in 68 children in the U.S.
Because no two children with an autism spectrum disorder are alike — a child's disability may range from mild to severe — special education teachers must often find innovative ways to make their classroom inclusive for all their students.
One of the ways in which the California State University — the leading preparer of K-12 teachers in the state — excels is in training special education teachers, which includes those that teach kids and teenagers with autism. In 2015-2016 alone, the CSU prepared nearly 1,400 special education teachers.
"Being a teacher in a special education setting requires juggling a great deal of responsibilities on a daily basis," says Liam Whitney, who is earning a special education credential at California State University, Long Beach, and has been working as an educator for three years. "It's my job to manage students and staff in my classroom, to track student progress, to communicate with parents, to organize fundraisers and field trips, to prepare IEPs [Individualized Education Programs], as well as countless other duties."
"My coursework at CSU Long Beach certainly prepared me to wear all of these hats," he says.
"As a person on the autism spectrum myself," continues Whitney, "I have felt drawn to this work, and feel that I often have a unique read on how my students are feeling, and why they may be acting a certain way. I would love to keep learning all I can about autism and get involved in the community however I can be utilized."
In this role, he also hopes to spread awareness and education about autism, while debunking misconceptions: "It's important for the public to know that people with autism are a very diverse group, with a wide range of pretty amazing talents.
"I think many people have an outdated and negatively skewed perception of autism; it's important that we interact with others and show people that what connects us is far stronger than what makes us different."
The Impact of a Special Needs Teacher: Beyond the Student
Alyssa Pekarcik, a CSU Long Beach student earning multiple-subject and special education credentials, was inspired to pursue a career in special education teaching after observing her cousin, who has Down syndrome, struggle in school.
"I kept wondering if my cousin were to be mainstreamed earlier in his education, the possibilities he could have on his journey," Pekarcik explains, adding that she looks forward to using what she's learned in her coursework at CSULB to create an inclusive environment in her own classroom so that every child has the opportunity to thrive.
But the impact of a special needs educator extends beyond the classroom. Many feel it is their responsibility to also raise awareness about autism and the importance of inclusivity in the wider community.
"I've seen how rewarding the career of a special education teacher is, as well as the lifelong impact a teacher can make for a child with a disability and their family," explains Devon Wilson, who is also enrolled in the special education credential program at CSU Long Beach. "I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I never knew how much this career would positively impact my life."
"We all having defining traits that go beyond what we see. Therefore it is my job to show people — not just in the month of April, but all year — what my students are made of, and they are made of pure awesome!"
CSU campuses are hosting a multitude of events throughout the month of April in recognition of National Autism Awareness Month.