Karla is an 18 year old girl with autism. She began as my student when she was 13 years old back in 2009. She came to my classroom because she was struggling in her placement and required more behavioral supports and structure in order to participate in school activities. I was a new teacher to the school and she was my only student for the first 2 weeks. Karla and I got to know each other very well over those 2 weeks. She had significant behaviors when she started in my class. She would scream, tantrum, hide under desks, run away and would often hit herself when she was frustrated or upset. It was easy to identify that behind her behaviors was an intent to communicate. She wanted and needed to communicate her feelings, thoughts and ideas as well as her needs but just did not know how.
Over the years, with visual supports, social stories, structured language instruction, modeling and positive behavior programming Karla came a long way but still struggled with being able to reciprocate or initiate conversation with others. When asked a question her common response would be a frustrated “I don’t know!” I used many social stories with Karla, particularly to work through challenging situations or to front load upcoming changes in her schedule or routine. She would read the social stories and often times they would help her calm down. She would ask to bring her social stories home with her. The words on the pages gave her comfort and by reading them rather than listening to someone talk, she was more able to process the meaning behind the words. Karla had significant delays in receptive language so processing verbal language was very difficult for her. It’s as if the words would come out of people’s mouths and float into space. When they were written down they were permanent and she could read over as many times necessary in order to understand.
One day in class, I noticed Karla was typing something on her computer. Come to find out she was typing herself a social story!! She had been nervous about her bus getting home late. I had created a social story to help her be ok with the bus arriving late because of traffic or other circumstances. In her social story she typed words and “mantras” like “everything is ok”, “if my bus is late I can be flexible”. This became an ongoing occurrence. She would type social stories about when she was happy and when she was upset. I wanted to teach Karla how to have a reciprocal conversation and she had given me a great idea! I created an e-mail account for Karla and taught her how to use her e-mail to e-mail her parents. The idea was that her parents would e-mail her and ask her a question, she would check her e-mail and answer their question, then ask them a question. We practiced this for a while. She needed prompting and visual supports to complete the communication task but was independent with accessing and using her e-mail. One day she came to me and said “Ms.Thornton your e-mail?” I asked, “Do you want my e-mail address?” , Her response was, “Yes. Please.” I added my e-mail address to her address book in her e-mail account not knowing what incredible things would happen next.
Karla began to e-mail me every day. She started off with a sentence or two. Over the span of a year, she e-mails me multiple paragraphs, conveys her thoughts ideas and emotions, answers questions and has a full on reciprocal and ongoing conversation with me! We have become pen pals. Since then, we are no longer together, in person anyway, but we are connected through her chosen language and way of communicating. Typing words back and forth has proven to be her language, her means of expression. Just last week I received a letter in the mail. It was a letter from Karla. I was beaming with excitement to receive it. Her e-mails and communication with me have become a highlight in my days. I reflect on where she was and where she is now and feel a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation for her and all that she has given to me. It’s remembering that our purpose in working with such incredible individuals is meeting them where they are and speaking their language rather than expecting them to meet us where we are. Much love and gratitude to you Karla, my pen pal, my teacher and my friend.
See more about my yogi friend Karla and her gift for drawing in Karla’s Page on my website Yoga by Shawnee and visit the page about Autism and the benefits of yoga for children with autism and special needs.