February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month. To celebrate this important month and our diverse workforce, we have invited Shera Bello, one of our Early Childhood teachers and an exceptional young woman on the autism spectrum to contribute to our blog. In her own words she gives us a glimpse into her challenges, but more importantly, her successes. - Pamela Staeudle, Early Childhood teacher
As the introduction suggests, this is a piece about what it means to be a person who teaches but also a person who teaches and happens to have autism. I have it – not to be confused with it having me. I tend to frown upon the word “disability” – it's more of an aspect of me, maybe even a strength or ability.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. I went to college on Long Island for social work and psychology, specializing in supporting at-risk youth. I took courses towards a dual masters degree in history and special education. I was first officially diagnosed with autism when I was in 2nd grade, but they called it “Pervasive Developmental Disorder - not otherwise specified.” Like many children on the spectrum, I had trouble focusing and staying on task, which they later attributed to ADD.
The life I live now, I am proud to say, is a life of independence and joy. I think having many valuable resources available to me as I was growing up was an integral part of my success as an autonomous adult. From early intervention to the resource room in public school, I feel that I've had the support and encouragement needed to achieve my personal best academically and interpersonally.
My mother was knowledgeable on the types of services that would benefit me most. She routinely attended child study group meetings for updates on my progress and to learn about any possible accommodations. My mother also worked alongside support staff on our family's behalf to guide her in securing what I needed. In elementary school I was in mainstream classes for the majority of my subjects. I did fairly well with the “push in” help and smaller group settings. Some strategies that I've used since then were things such as finding special educational services that were able to be carried into my college courses. Whether it was extended time on exams or clarifications from the professor, I was able to be my own best advocate and vocalize what I needed.
That's really what it’s all about – knowing what was needed and trying hard to find support. But more importantly, what I personally needed. Never what was expected or typical. Things that now come easily to me had to be learned through years of repetition. For example, making my own phone calls to schedule my personal doctor appointments, arranging for transportation, opening up my own checking and savings account and learning to be financially responsible. I had to learn to balance my social and work life (let’s be real though, who doesn’t?). My parents, while very involved in my growth, never sheltered me or made me think for a second that I couldn’t do something because I was on the spectrum. In a recent phone conversation my mom said this, “Disability doesn’t mean that you should value experiences any less. Keeping you sheltered doesn’t open you up and prepare you for the world.” With her confidence and encouragement in my abilities, I tackled my social anxiety head on.
I went to college and had the “whole college young person experience.” I had the freedom and space to make mistakes, learn from them, fall in love and get my heart broken. I traveled to Israel on Birthright trips with no one I knew, visited a few other countries solo a few years later, made lifelong friends while I was there, went skydiving with a college friend and had countless “normal young person experiences.”
My mom also added “you can’t smother a child. No child on the spectrum has a deficiency. They just see the world in a different way. You have to allow them to have those experiences. There are far fewer differences than what unites us as parents of autistic children, we simply want what’s best for them. That might look different from person to person, but the core desire is the same.”
I mentioned above that I am a teacher; it’s a job that I am committed to and feel passionate about. I always try my best to teach from a place of compassion, understanding, and the added lens of being a person on the spectrum. I try to think of all the various reasons a child may be acting or reacting to different situations. I try and remember to use all of my senses and my training together to assist children; I assess what they want and need in order to have meaningful experiences at school.
I feel very fortunate to be able to play such an integral role in these children's lives, and I look forward to work every day. I don't know if I would previously describe myself as a proud autistic person, because it's like anything else, it's just what I am, not an accomplishment so to speak. When I am able to break through to a child and help them feel comforted, understood, validated and safe, I feel proud knowing that something connected with them enough to allow them to let me in, even if it's for a brief second.
It is my hope that my personal connection to the topic may be used to inspire others and open up future dialogue. At the end of the day, I'm just a person in the world who wants to leave it a little bit shinier and sparklier than I found it. This is my hope.
- Shera Bello