My path toward becoming a special educator started when I was young. My twin brother was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.5 years old. He was nonverbal. He was aggressive. He was also my best friend. My earliest memories are of me in CBTU (now Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning) with my brother, surrounded by scores of students on the autism spectrum. From that same period, I remember being visited by researchers from UCLA that were doing some of the first twin studies into autism. I was full of wonder and questions. It was at that point I decided I wanted to be a scientist. Particularly, one who studied autism and tried to understand and help kids that were not in control of themselves, and to develop ways to help them comprehend what they need to do to be successful.
I pursued doctoral training in neuroscience at UC Davis studying disorders associated with fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome (DiGeorge/velocardiofacial syndrome), autism, traumatic brain injury, and severe anxiety disorders. I was attempting to bridge the clinical research and animal model research by working in both clinical and animal labs modeling behavioral phenotypes of neurodevelopmental disorders. I learned to work as a team, as I was part of a research consortium and was working directly with five professors. I also learned how to communicate with children that had disabilities as well as their families. I also learned just how far we have to go to truly help these individuals from academia.
After I received my Ph.D. I did a few years of postdoctoral work to gain experience working with children with Down’s Syndrome and autism. Then I left academics. I pursued teaching as a course as I felt an intense need to take the behavioral skills that I had developed over my scientific career and provide direct services to children on the autism spectrum and those with other neurodevelopmental disorders. I pursued work as a paraprofessional for a year in Alpine School District in a small group autism/life skills classroom as well as a 504 paraprofessional to help a student on the autism spectrum focus in class and complete assignments. I then was able to work as a teacher of record in a small group autism/life skills classroom with 8-12, 2-5th-grade students. Primarily I was tasked with improving student behavior as only two of the students in the classroom qualified for alternative testing (DLM) under district guidelines.
Next, I moved over to Granite School District and worked half-time as a mainstream specialist (mainstreaming students with the goal of moving them out of self-contained units and into general education with resource services) and half-time as a resource teacher at another school. To meet the challenges of these positions I developed methodological pipelines and designed computational resources to assist in mainstreaming. The methods and results of my mainstreaming methods have been published in a scholarly journal. I also had the opportunity to work closely with the state UCAT team and within the district for implementing AAC and other assistive technology resources for students that were only in special classes because these technologies had never been implemented.
The subsequent year I moved into the district office and worked as a mainstreaming/inclusion specialist and coordinator for Applied Academic classrooms throughout the district for elementary aged students. I also was an active member of the behavioral team and autism team, which involved designing and implementing behavior plans and doing FBA/BIP as well as actual functional analyses to help these students on the spectrum control their behaviors to meet their needs in socially appropriate ways. I also started working increasingly with students that had visual impairments in this position. Often I was brought in to help with behaviors, only to find the behaviors were predictable (and thoroughly documented by the TVI) given the visual impairments.
My goal is to help all students, regardless of their disability classification or life challenges, achieve independence and to help them be served by the LRE they need for success. Long term, I hope to develop methods to assist in special education-general education transition for students receiving self-contained special education services. To meet this end, I plan to focus my teaching and policy efforts moving forward in helping students that have economic and other disadvantages that typically bar access to high-quality educational services. I plan to leverage my fluency in Spanish to assist students from Hispanic backgrounds and with disabilities achieve success in their education, but also to help extend these lessons into the broader community and help them achieve broader independence goals, access to assistive technologies, etc.
Note: When I have case studies presented in this blog, they are highly anonymized and often the gender is switched. This is done to protect the identity of any children. I also do not blog cases using examples from my current classroom unless explicit consent has been provided. The vast majority of the cases I will refer to are children/adolescents/adults with autism or other developmental disorders that I have known in my life and through my research.