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Autism in Education: The Power of One Kind Teacher

How just one empathetic teacher inspired my brother to fulfill his full potential amidst the many that judged him for being unable to learn in a typical classroom setting

My brother has autism. He’s incredibly smart and has a special talent for numbers and arithmetic, but he’s struggled throughout his whole life to learn in a normal classroom setting. He is constantly in motion, whether he’s gesturing elaborately and exclaiming loudly in class, jumping up and running around while clapping and giggling, or blurting out questions completely unrelated to the curriculum, like “Why do we have daylight savings?” or “What day of the week will your birthday be in 2081?”

My parents enrolled my brother in the regular education system, hoping that with district-provided aides and extra study sessions, my brother could get a full secondary education. But the public school curriculum, with its packed rows of desks and lecture-style classes that were easy for even me to doze off occasionally in, became unbearable to my brother. In his freshman year of high school, after years of not-so-subtle detentions from his various teachers, meltdowns in class, open jibes from his classmates, and discouraging remarks from school officials, he knocked over a few glass vials in Chemistry class during a massive meltdown and was officially moved to the special education curriculum for the rest of high school.

At the time, it felt a lot like everyone had collectively given up on my brother, that his teachers refused to see his potential as a student, for convenience’s sake. I understood that his behavior could often be seen as rude, distracting, and even physically aggressive, but I just wished that teachers could see my brother as more than just a manifestation of the stigma of autism and mental disabilities.

During this past summer, to try to engage him more in independent learning of his favorite subject, math, my parents enrolled my brother in an Algebra 2 course at the local community college. After his first day, my dad told us all that his teacher had called to schedule a meeting in person the next day.

My parents and I thought of all the usual meetings with teachers over the past years. The I’m sorry, but your son is a danger to the other students in the classroom, followed by the If he could just control his arm-flapping and screaming and focus properly, then he could stay. And then finally the verdict: I’m going to have to remove him from my classroom. I hope you can understand my decision.

But the next day, when they came back home in the afternoon, my brother was ecstatic.

“My teacher gave this to me!” he blabbered excitedly, “He says I can bring lunch and eat with him every day so the other kids don’t bully me! He wanted me at the meeting! He told me I’m smart and he knows I can complete the class!”

I’d been expecting and hearing about my brother’s expulsions for so long that it hadn’t even occurred to me that some rare teacher might actually take the time to get to know him, to realize that he wasn’t a scary, dumb interruption in their classroom but a student, eager to learn despite the meltdowns and tics that he can’t help. Did teachers like this really exist? Those who went beyond the surface duties of grading papers and making tests and answering questions to empathize with students, even when those students didn’t fit the mold of the “normal” pupil?

The next morning, I waved at him from the sidewalk as he disappeared inside the double doors to the college. I tried to preserve the image of him strolling down the hallway with his new lunchbox swinging at his side, his arms flapping, his eyes already eagerly seeking out the green door, a force pushing him toward the classroom where a teacher would warmly and sincerely greet him, where he’d feel welcome as a member of the classroom who was equal to everyone else.

I wonder what he and the teacher talked about over lunch. Maybe they swapped stories of horrible classroom experiences. Maybe my brother finally began replacing his memories of frustrated teachers and snickering classmates with new memories of his shiny blue lunchbox and the sound of his teacher’s voice: “I believe in you.”

For the first time, reassurance sank in that one teacher saw capability in my brother, saw that he is not just good or bad—that he has all the complicated but valid emotions and motivations behind his actions that everyone does. Rather than punishing my brother for the actions he can’t control, this one teacher understood why he behaves the way he does.

My brother ended up succeeding with a B in that class. But that’s not even the best part. No matter what, my brother and I both know that there’s at least one teacher in the world who realizes that my brother deserves an education as much as anyone else. 

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