This blog entry is going to be a little different than my past blog posts. It’s the story of a kid who worked hard, became resilient, stayed positive, remained faithful, and never quit. I usually try to leave those who read my blog with a resource, or something to take back to the classroom and use with students. Today’s resource is the gift of hope. The hope for a great year and the reminder that you have one of the most important jobs in the world. You are molding and inspiring young people. You can be a reason why they never gave up and kept reaching for their goals. You can help impact students in ways you will most likely never get to see, yet you become are part in their story. A story like the one I am going to tell about my son, Austin. He gave me permission to share this personal story as he hopes that it inspires someone.
“We need stories of hope perhaps more than we need new ideas on curriculum, formative assessment, or instructional strategies. Stories of hope can nurture our spirits”-Elena Aguilar, Educator
The Early Years
In March of 2003, my husband and I were blessed with a beautiful baby boy, who we named Austin. I remember just staring at him when he was a baby, just marveling at what a miracle he was. He was such a happy baby and was a great sleeper; something young parents only dream of! He hit all the milestones babies are supposed to reach their first year of life. As he got older, I began to notice that he wasn’t hitting those verbal milestones in the same timeframe as some of his peers in our play groups. He cried in frustration much of the time as he tried to communicate with us. I figured he’d just catch up and that it was perfectly natural to have a delay in speech development. He was saying some words, but not enough to string together full ideas. He was two years old and we were expecting our second little boy when I began researching speech therapy. As an educator, I knew that early intervention was key in his development. I can recall being in my 7th month of pregnancy and taking him to a speech therapy appointment and he was not happy. He was melting down and I had to carry him kicking and screaming down two levels of stairs. I remember missing a step and falling. Thankfully, none of us were hurt, but I do recall my heart feeling pretty broken. I didn’t understand why he was so unhappy and I truly felt helpless. There were other situations where he would have full meltdowns in public places. I vividly remember being at Costco and he threw a full carton of eggs out of the cart. I slowly slid down the wall and fell to the floor and cried. I was at a complete loss as to what to do next. I read book after book and tried strategy after strategy to find ways to help him communicate.
As time went on, his speech began to improve, but the meltdowns became worse and more frequent. He had a difficult time playing with other children. As his language began to increase, so did talking about particular interests. He did tend to perseverate on some topics and was particularly interested in things like buttons, cameras, trains, and lining up his toys in very particular ways. He had an amazing memory for a 2.5 year old. I began to pour my heart into research. I started reading about Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. Austin did have many characteristics that fit the profile so we decided to have him tested. Little did I know that being tested was not an easy feat. We were on a waiting list to see a specialist at the University of New Mexico for nearly a year. I fought relentlessly with insurance companies as I tried to get testing elsewhere. I had piles of books, spirals full of notes, and folders full of bills. I remember navigating this time in my life, complete with dirty looks from strangers, and friends saying “Oh, so he’s like Rain Man?”
A Diagnosis and Preschool
We finally got him tested and the evaluation specialists were split in their diagnosis–half went with the diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder and the other half went with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Either way, we had somewhat of a diagnosis, which was the next step in receiving services. Austin was accepted to an early intervention program, called Child Find. He received OT, PT, and Speech Therapy. This was the first encounter with teachers who would change the course of his life. They saw things we didn’t. They immediately saw that Austin had weak trunk strength, flat feet, didn’t walk up and down stairs naturally, and demonstrated difficulty with fine motor skills (holding a pencil, cutting with scissors, and coloring). The teachers had suggested we put Austin in gymnastics to strengthen his upper body. He continued this program combined with gymnastics for two years and the results were remarkable. His speech improved tremendously. His handwriting was probably the neatest handwriting I had ever seen in a preschooler, and he gained strength to walk up and down stairs correctly.
As Austin became older, it was clear to us that he had a gift; the gift of a photographic memory. I can recall him coming home from preschool and writing down all of the names of each of his classmates and spelling them all correctly, even though he was an emerging reader. There were many other examples of his amazing gift of memory; this would become even more amazing the older he became.
The next part of the story which changed his life was attending Covenant Preschool. This school was structured perfectly for Austin and he had teachers that loved him just as he was–what a perfect gift. I will never forget the grace and love shown by the late Ms. Carol, Ms. Joy, Ms. Ashley, and Ms. Stephanie–all whom I am still in contact with after all these years. They remember Austin. They prepared him for kindergarten and set him up for success. Most importantly, they loved him and he knew it.
Next up was kindergarten. Austin was in a general education kindergarten classroom where he went to speech therapy twice a week. I will never forget his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Cvetic. She loved Austin, even though I know he was a handful for her. She saw his potential and worked on his strengths. We were so fortunate when our younger son was lucky enough to be in her kindergarten class as well. Austin was lucky once again in first grade to have Mrs. Hess as his teacher. She, too, loved Austin and was patient, loving, structured, and kind. My husband and I were truly blessed to witness Austin’s growth in these critical, early years. If there’s anything that will calm an anxious mother’s heart, it’s knowing that her child is being taught with kindness and grace. As Austin progressed academically, the social aspect of school proved to be the most difficult. We joined various social skills classes, but never found the right fit. Many of the social skills groups thought Austin was the peer model because Austin was so social. He may have lacked some of the social norms, but Austin has always been very outgoing. We attended these groups, but never returned for a second visit.
We fought hard for Austin. We never wanted him to feel less than or different. He belonged in general education classes and always met the grade level milestones. Of course, not every teacher was the best fit for him, and I don’t even remember some of their names…but the ones that I do remember are because they made an impact on his life forever. There’s a reason why we have such tender memories of these special teachers…it’s all about relationships and connection.
In fourth grade, we moved schools. I brought both of my boys to North Star Elementary, where I was a technology teacher. He had another fabulous teacher that year, Mrs. Butler (formerly Mrs. Sutphin). She was the perfect mix of structure and kindness for Austin. He thrived in fourth grade. This was also the year when Austin received his Black Belt in Taekwondo, something that he’d been working on for the past three years. The following year, he had another amazing teacher, Mrs. McDowell, who also left an imprint on our hearts. Austin was even more blessed to have so much support and love from the administrative team, Mrs. Fascitelli and Mrs. Smith. It’s special people like them who build a culture of love and acceptance. It was in 4th grade where we finally received an offical diagnosis of Aspergers. The diagnosis didn’t change anything in Austin’s education, but it did serve as protection for him and could be beneficial as he got older. Overall, his elementary school days were filled with sweet memories and huge gains, both academically and socially.
“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”-Rita Pierson
Middle school would prove to be the toughest for Austin. Sixth grade was difficult not only because having multiple teachers was hard and curricular content wold become more difficult, but socially it was rough. He wanted so badly to fit in, but many kids had a difficult time accepting Austin as he was still working on social norms and two-way conversations. As we all know, middle school kids can be cruel. I don’t think any of these kids had intentions of being so mean, I think it’s just the most awkward time in adolescent development. Our saving grace in middle school came from a loving counselor, who we believe was the key to Austin’s success during his three years in middle school. Ms. Matteucci never gave up on Austin and always showed kindness and compassion for our whole family. Through the years, she has become a great friend and we love her dearly. Ms. Cox, formerly Ms. Greaser, was another teacher in middle school who worked so hard to help Austin achieve his goals. I vividly remember her texting me a selfie of her and Austin when they found out he made the honor roll for the first time in 7th grade. She was just as excited as we were! Both of these teachers went the extra mile. They made genuine connections with us. As middle school ended for Austin, the special education team discontinued speech therapy for Austin as his academics no longer justified needing the service. Moving forward, he would be monitored for continued progress. He finished the last year of middle school on the honor roll and enjoyed learning from teachers who brought learning to life, particularly Mr. Martin, who made U.S. History his most favorite class. There were other teachers like Mr. Thompson who didn’t even have Austin in any classes but made an impact because of daily conversations in the hallways. He still talks about some of the funny conversations they’d have about sports during passing periods. That’s connection and it makes all the difference.
“The biggest challenge in life is to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else.”-Author Unknown
Austin continued to have teachers and counselors who were continuously supportive during high school. He had teachers who listened to him and gave him opportunities to participate in activities where he could demonstrate his strengths. Great things began happening for Austin. A sweet friend of ours, Mindy, and her son Jacob, knew Austin had a gift for sports statistics. They had asked Austin if he wanted to be the PA Announcer at the Sandia High School baseball games. This would be his first opportunity to be a public announcer and gave a voice to the kid who knew everything about sports. He announced for Sandia HS that baseball season and was once again shown much kindness by the baseball team and people like Mindy and Jacob. Austin was truly blessed to be mentored by his buddy, the late Austin Denton. He was a talented sports journalist at La Cueva and one grade ahead of Austin. Once Austin Denton graduated, he and the Athletic Director, Ms. Moores, passed the mic to Austin, where he announced the games for volleyball, boys and girls basketball, and baseball. He even had a few paid gigs to announce at local youth football games. We will always be grateful to Austin Denton for his friendship, guidance, and the advice he gave to Austin.
A few months before the Pandemic, Austin got his first job at Dion’s Pizza. Dion’s was another company that gladly took him in and taught him the ropes. The entire time he was employed at Dion’s, he was punctual and never missed a shift. I am quite certain he had managers that had to remind him to get to work and stop chatting, but Austin’s work ethic is something to admire. Although the Pandemic took away many high school memories that Austin never got to have, he always maintained a positive attitude. Through online high school, Austin continued to do well and had teachers who continued to encourage and inspire him. There were many teachers along the way, but one that stands out is Austin’s English teacher who wrote this very special note to him on graduation.
“I am glad to know you and so proud of you as you finish high school. We have shared many moments, and I feel sort of nostalgic for your honesty and generous stories that help others know what the world looks like from your perspective. I remember working together to score Julius Caesar final projects during finals. And I remember fishbowl discussions during class and the way other students grew in their own empathy after learning from your experiences. I hope these strange times have not diminished your inner light and you have good opportunities to make use of your gifts and talents. Whatever path you take, those you meet will be blessed from your efforts.”-Ms. Schripsema
It’s difficult for me to even get through that note she wrote without a tear or two running down my cheek. Her words built him up. Austin had also shared with me that one of his favorite high school memories was just hanging out and chatting with Coach Perea after his Calculus final. Imagine something as simple as the gift of your time and having a conversation being one of your student’s favorite memories. Despite the year and a half of being taught online and the struggles that came with that, Austin graduated with a 3.1 GPA. He is excited to be attending a four year university this fall and is preparing to “leave the nest,” as he says. He was named “Most School Spirit” by his classmates for the Senior Superlatives and was voted onto Homecoming Court. Kids came to accept Austin for who he was and seemed to value his uniqueness and thoughtful spirit. I’m so grateful that he ended high school on such a high note and I will forever be grateful for his time at La Cueva High School. “Once a Bear, always a Bear.”
Family and Village of Friends
Austin would not be where he is today had it not been for the amazing support and love from his grandparents (Nana & Papa). They never missed a gymnastics event, tee ball game, Taekwondo test, band concert, or honor roll assembly. They were there to not only support Austin, but they helped wipe my tears along the way during those early years. I’ll always be grateful for their unconditional love and support. His late Mimi would have be so proud of Austin and I know she’d be bursting with joy to see the young man he is today. Grandpa Mike and Grandma Kathy have loved seeing Austin grow up and I know they treasured the summer he spent a few weeks on his first solo trip and flight to North Carolina. He is loved by his aunts, uncles, and cousins. I know that as he graduated, they were beaming with pride.
We have been very lucky in our lives to have made the best of friends. From great friends since before we were married to Stonebridge friends to the Bear Village (and so many dear friends in between), we have been blessed beyond measure to have friends that have supported the growth of this young man. They say it takes a village to raise a child…no truer words were ever spoken. To those friends who are a part of this story and have prayed, loved, watched, and cared for Austin…thank you.
“Autism doesn’t come with an instruction guide. It comes with a family who will never give up.”-Kerry Magro
Gratitude & Hope
I am so proud of Austin. He has overcome more in his 18 years than most of us could handle. He has put in the hard work and has taught us all what love really means. If you’ve met him, then you know his loving and genuine spirt, fierce loyalty, and his zest for life. I hope he goes out into this next chapter with confidence and continued positivity. My heart swells with pride as I look back and reflect on just how far he has come and what a remarkable young man he is today. He is loved like crazy.
If you made it this far…thank you. Remember that one child with Autism is one child with Autism. You will rarely meet two kids on the Autism spectrum that behave the same. It’s important to know that labeling and limiting children doesn’t benefit anyone; it narrows one’s mind and imposes unnecessary hurdles. Acceptance, love, loyalty, and compassion are what these kids need most (and a great teacher)! My hope for all teachers is to simply remind you to go out this school year and be the best you can be. Remember why you do this important job and carry stories of hope like this with you. You are making a difference. Take the time to build relationships and create trust with your students. Remember, you are being written into a child’s story. Here’s to writing a great one!