Friday, January 14, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Means of Communication

Written by: Jessie Leon 

I didn’t know what to expect when I transitioned from teaching general education in a middle school to teaching special education to high school students three years ago.  At the time, I had limited experience teaching students who were autistic.  I soon learned that the term was vast, and there was no singular behavior or level of ability I could expect.  I had students with Asperger’s syndrome who were brilliant at math but had difficulty in social situations; I had students who couldn’t speak, their only form of communication being their rocking back and forth; I had students who were very verbal, but spoke only of their one, often random, obsession, that classmates had no interest in interacting with them.

As a teacher, much of my job is learning how to be there for the students and support them, particularly kids in special education programs – their need for my presence is greater.  I have to learn how to communicate when they are tight-mouthed.  I have to be wary of what I say, or what look I give, as my relationship with the students is fragile, and I know that my students might interpret our conversation or my gestures differently from how I intended.  Currently, I have a girl in my class who is autistic (let’s call her Jane).  I’ve caused her to run out of the room, weeping, on more than several occasions, and in every instance, it was because I inadvertently changed the tone, or raised the volume of my voice, causing her to feel as if I was disappointed or angered by something she did.     
It’s been a learning curve for me, recognizing that Jane is more sensitive than anyone I’d ever met, that I had a tremendous impact on whether she had a great day, or a terrible one, and that’s a lot of pressure – to know that the feelings of a young person falls directly in one’s hands, and every minute one has to be cognizant, present, and cautious.  As a teacher, I have no room for error.  I don’t get to be the parent who makes up for mistakes with ice cream and a hug. As a teacher, especially one in my small program, where the rooms are connected, and one interacts with the students every single period, there can be no such thing as a bad day, or a half hour break, and maybe that’s part of the reason why less teachers want to teach special education students: it’s all-consuming; it’s exhausting, draining, and yet, immensely rewarding, because while I feel that every word I say counts twice as much, I feel, on most days at least, that someone is really listening, and that what I’m saying really does, even if just to a small few, matter. 
For good or bad, when I walk into my classroom, I know that even though students with autism are thought of by most as being poor communicators, it’s to them whom I’m teaching; they’re the ones holding on to every word, figuring out, as if deciphering a puzzle, or watching a movie with the sound off.  Much of our communicating these days is without words, and we are building our relationship slowly.  I am reminding myself with every sentence or gesticulation, I am shaping her experience in school.  There’s a certain delicacy one must possess as a special education teacher, and nobody tells you that in graduate school. As teachers, sometimes we act as parents, other times as a friend.  We juggle our roles, some days better than others.  We try to be kind.  We try to be a positive influence.  We try to be something more than just a nagging authority figure with a book of stickers and an apple.  Sometimes, we succeed.

Jessie is a writer and high school English teacher living in Brooklyn and attending the City College of New York's m.f.a program in creative writing. For more on Jessie, please visit her at
If you would like to contribute to the "Through the Looking Glass" series, please email me at with your name, connection to Autism, contact information and a writing sample or link to writing sample. Please allow 5 to 10 days for review. Once accepted, you may write on any topic  - as long as it relates to Autism.  Word count: 500 - 650 words. 


  1. Classic Jessie. Well-written, insightful and thought-provoking. Now hurry up and come over to my house!

  2. Excellent work Jessie! Truly inspiriting.

    W. Colon

  3. Jessie, what an eloquent essay. Thanks.


  4. Such a beautifully written post, Jessie! Those students are so lucky to have you as their teacher. I'm proud of you! And hi, Lisa-just stumbled onto your great blog which is full of inspirational musings. Bookmarked!


AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.