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posted Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Tuscaloosa teacher values autistic students

(AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Dan Lopez)

David Seale, 9, gets a licking from his border collie, Michael, as his mother Judy looks on, Thursday, April 16, 2009 at their home in Vance, Ala. David Seale, 9, has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, and his family learned in October that he qualified to receive a service dog from the Wilderwood Service Dogs facility in Maryville, Tenn. Michael is named after Michael Phelps.

Associated Press

Published: May 10, 2009

TUSCALOOSA (AP) — At the start of her day at Sprayberry Education Center, Pam Miller pulls out picture cue cards for her students. Because seven of her eight students can’t communicate verbally, Miller, the autism K-5 teacher at Sprayberry, relies on the picture cards and sign language to interpret her students’ needs.
This is Miller’s second year at Sprayberry, but throughout her 18 years in teaching — previously she worked with special education students at Holt Elementary School — she has worked with a number of autistic children.
“I love working with children with autism because everyone is so different,“ Miller said. “They all have such unique and wonderful personalities. There are no two that are the same. They’re each a mystery, and you have to figure out what makes each one work.“
In teaching children with severe autism, Miller deals with students who may experience difficulty communicating, often exhibit repetitive behavior and can be easily upset by small changes in their environment.
So, before she can teach her students their ABCs and 123s, Miller has to first learn about her students’ lives and what makes them tick.
Miller said she has learned that each child has a different “stimming,“ which is a self-stimulating, repetitive behavior, such as hand-flapping, spinning or humming, that they enjoy.
“Some of them like to hold a string, some need something to flash, some sing songs all day and some repeat lines from movies. Every child has something unique and different about them,“ Miller said.
Miller said that after figuring out what interests her students, it’s then her job to integrate those interests into her teaching.
With one student who loves trains, she will use trains in her lessons. With another student who loves to sing, Miller tries to incorporate singing on a daily basis.
“Trying to educate them is like figuring out a puzzle and putting a mystery together,“ Miller said.
Miller said her interest in special education was inspired by her own life.
She has two cousins with disabilities and is amazed by their strength and self-acceptance, she said.
“One of my cousins had an illness that only five children in the U.S. had at that time. He was always fascinating and would often laugh about his handicap. He didn’t let other people get him down by their staring at him. He was the strongest little creatures I’ve ever known,“ she said.
Though she loves her job, her work can be frustrating at times, Miller said.
She works hard to establish a level of trust with her students, but there are always moments when she fails to do so and doesn’t know how to comfort them, she said.
“You might have a child who’s crying with tears pouring down their face, but you don’t know if they’re hungry or hurting. You have to go through a checklist: Are they hungry? Do they have to go to the bathroom?
“Sometimes we never figure it out, and that’s the frustrating part, not knowing what to do to help them,“ Miller said.
That’s one reason Miller’s duties take her beyond the classroom. She stays in constant communication with her students’ parents.
“It’s very critical to have communication,“ Miller said. “We do a daily folder I give to all my parents each day. I give all my parents my cell phone number and am available at all times to talk things out and to help. Whatever I can do, I’m there.“
Suzanne Gaston, whose son, Bradley, is in Miller’s class, said Miller’s passion for her work changes lives.
Gaston said she noticed an immediate difference in Bradley’s social skills and understanding after coming to Sprayberry.
Miller was able to figure out his learning style and build his trust, Gaston said.
“Last year, I struggled with the thought that he would never read, since he failed every standardized kindergarten-level prereading test. But now, we can lie in bed at night and spell words or I can ask him to tell me the months of the year, the days of the week and the seasons,“ Gaston said.
Annette Gilliland’s son, Patrick, 13, has Asperger’s Syndrome and worked with Miller from kindergarten to fourth grade when he was at Holt Elementary.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a disorder that affects children’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. Children with Asperger’s typically exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics.
Patrick’s intense interest and knowledge of statistics is characteristic of Asperger’s, and Gilliland said Patrick did things with Miller that he wouldn’t do with other people. She credits his social skills and level of education to Miller.
“She treated him as an equal. To her, he wasn’t a student with a disability but just a typical student,“ Gilliland said. “He’s totally mainstream now and is on the A-B honor roll. To be a high-functioning autism child is wonderful.“
Because early intervention is crucial for children with autism, Miller plays a pivotal role in her students’ development.
In working with her students, Miller not only helps to improve their communication and social skills, she helps lay a foundation for learning that will prepare and follow them throughout their lives.
While parents call her an angel, Miller said she’s just doing the job she loves.
“There are so many success stories. Those are the moments that keep you going through the repetitive, doing the same thing everyday,“ Miller said. “When a child who doesn’t talk looks you in the eye and makes a noise, my wanting to figure out what it is they are trying to say is why I do what I do everyday. Getting to come to work everyday and do what I love doing is a blessing.“

Source:   http://www.nbc13.com/vtm/news/local/article/tuscaloosa_teacher_values_autistic_students/71870/

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