A little bit about myself, my role as an Educator and why I do what I do
My name is Becca Lewis and I am finishing up my fourth-year teaching. I received my Bachelor of Science in Early Education and Special Education from Millersville University. I then went on to acquire my Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) with a concentration in Autism Spectrum Disorder from Drexel University.
I have taught students with autism all four years of my teaching career. The first school I taught at, I opened up the classroom at this school building and taught students in grades kindergarten through second grade. Previously at this school there was only an intermediate autistic support classroom for students in third grade through fifth grade. I then got married and accepted my current job which was much closer to where my husband and I were living. I had the privilege to start an elementary autistic support classroom at my current school. This was an amazing experience and one I am very thankful for. I truly got to start fresh with all of my students and staff and really mold this classroom into the best program it can be for these students.
From an early age I knew I wanted to be a teacher, however I always thought I wanted to teach either second or third grade. It wasn’t until the spring semester of my junior year of undergraduate classes that I was placed in an autistic support classroom for my field placement. I was terrified my first day because I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea if I was going to be a “good fit” to work with these students. Would I have enough patience? Would I know how to communicate with them? Would I know how to support them during a challenging time of their day? These fears and worries were quickly taken away by my amazing cooperating teacher. I had the chance to observe her and see how she interacted and instructed her students using the principles of Verbal Behavior and Applied Behavior Analysis and I was instantly hooked. I had found my passion and was so excited to graduate college and look for jobs specific to teaching students with autism.
My favorite part of my job is the amazing relationships I get to create with my students and their families. From the very first time I meet any of my students, I instantly begin the pairing process and our relationship only grows from there. I love celebrating all of the progress my students make. Any progress is worth celebrating no matter the size! I also love being able to teach my students crucial skills in order to allow them to be as successful and independent as possible.
Why Community Inclusion is important to society and how inclusion in the community benefits me and my students
Community Inclusion is crucial for a child to be successful in life. Most times, school and home are the child’s “safe” spaces. They are most comfortable and confident there. However, if we think toward the future, a child will not always be in school. There will come a time where students will need to know how to be successful in settings outside of a school or house location. For many of our learners, repetition is the key to their success. The more opportunities they have to practice a skill, the more successful they will get each time.
It is also very important to our society and the world we live in to learn to be patient and accept those with unique skill sets. Many families who have a child(ren) with autism tend to dread community outings in fear of not being accepted, something happening, looks they might get from passersby etc. By continued community outings by all, it also gives more exposure to the public that these individuals with autism are no different than any of us. They too want to communicate with others, get excited about their favorite items, activities, or food, and sometimes get upset over things that don’t go their way.
Some of the struggles/challenges I see for practicing meaningful Community Inclusion
I truly think the biggest struggle is a lack of understanding. I do think that many people are very accepting and want to interact with individuals with autism or other disabilities, they just don’t know how. Unfortunately, because of this many people come off as standoffish or, it may appear rude because they might be staring or looking. It would be amazing if those who do understand autism and disabilities would continue showing and sharing their experiences because I do think that will continue to soften the hearts of those around us and promote smoother Community Inclusion experiences.
How I collaborate and support families and professionals working outside of school
As a teacher, I do my best to collaborate and communicate with all families regarding the things we are working on in school with their child so that they can be transferred into the home and community. IEP meetings are great times to discuss these items but I don’t always wait until those meetings to share things we are doing! I am very quick to share with my families if we found something that worked or had a positive experience with a specific situation. I also make sure to share with families if there was anything challenging that happened and what made that situation challenging so we can all use it as a learning experience for the next time. My biggest advice for families is to be open and honest with the school team working with that child as well. The school team wants to support you and your goals for your child. If there are specific Community Inclusion activities you want to be able to do that are currently difficult for you and your family, please SHARE those with the school team! Goals are achieved much quicker when everyone is working together and the child gets many opportunities to practice.
Successes I have had with my students regarding community inclusion
I always love when families share success stories with me about different outings they do. I had one mom share that when they used to go to the store her son would keep to himself and would not respond to any greetings, even if workers or others would greet this child. She brought this up to the school team and together everyone worked on greetings and how to respond to a greeting, and before we knew it this child was initiating greetings to store employees! He was also responding to greetings that were directed to him.
I had another family share with me that they were afraid to go to church because they weren’t sure how their child would do at the “Kids Camp” that took place during the service. When the family shared that goal with me, we were able to work on independent work tasks at school that this student could do independently. We also worked on different social skills with this student such as tolerating other peers being at the same table as them, learning to sit on a carpet with other peers etc. Finally, I was able to work with the church staff where this child’s family attended and was able to help train some of their staff who would be working with this child each week.
I also had another family share with me that they were not able to go to restaurants because this child was not able to sit at a table during dinner and did not have the ability to “wait”. There was one Friday evening where this mom was invited to dinner with friends. She took her child with autism to the restaurant on a whim hoping it would be successful. When they got to the restaurant, they were told it was going to be about a 45-minute wait. This mom was panicking knowing there was no way her child was going to be able to wait that long before they were even sat. She then remembered back to a conversation we had earlier that month with my sharing about different apps that her child recently found a love for on the iPad. She quickly downloaded some of those apps, gave her child the phone, and she waited the whole 45 minutes without any problem behavior! They got seated and then got their food and this child didn’t have any behaviors while eating and didn’t try to leave the table as soon as she was done. This was attributed to this child now eating lunch in the cafeteria at school and learning how to sit for the duration of the lunch time. When she is done eating and if it isn’t time to leave the cafeteria yet, we practice waiting skills with this child. Because of all the skills we had been working on in school and collaborating and communicating those successes to the family, this family was able to have a successful outing to a restaurant!
Some of the 1st steps I think families should consider when starting to engage in meaningful community inclusion
Collaborate with your child’s teacher! There are many times where the goals you have for community inclusion for your child align with some sort of goal the school team is already working on. If they don’t align, it gives you a reason to have a conversation and to come up with a plan for both home and school to work towards. There are often many prerequisite skills needed to complete one activity or outing. Oftentimes those activities can be broken down and chunked into smaller tasks that can be worked on multiple times throughout the day both in school and at home. I would also suggest that families pick one or two community inclusion activities they want to focus on first. This could include going to the store, going to a movie theater, going to the park, going swimming at a pool, going to an amusement park, going to a restaurant. Once you have those goal areas, write down the skills your child already has in order to be successful in that situation. Then write down what challenges your child is currently having in those situations and what skills still need to be taught. I would then suggest you share these with the school team! Remember, the key to success is collaboration. You are not expected to work on these goals alone as the family. The school team is here to help and support you.
How I address some of the concerns/fears/hesitation that families have regarding Community Inclusion
Practice, practice, practice, and keep practicing! You have to start somewhere. If you are afraid to ever start, you won’t ever be able to be successful. There will always be people who are going to watch what you do, but don’t let their opinions affect your family. I know, easier said than done but hear me out. Everyone starts somewhere. In order to get to that successful outing, you might have one or two (or ten) unsuccessful outings but each outing you will learn something, your child will learn something, and the community will learn something. The more times you go out into the community the more you will grow, the more your child will grow, and the more the community will grow. There will always be a sense of fear/hesitation that might creep into your feelings or thoughts when deciding if you want to do a community outing, but just know that everyone starts somewhere.
Most recently, I have really been following the 5,4,3,2,1 method for things I am fearful of doing. I countdown from 5 and then I do it. This might be something to try the next time you are fearful of doing a community outing. Get the things you need in order to be as successful as possible, countdown from five and just go for it!
Message for professionals/businesses/ community partners and families to work towards promoting and supporting an inclusive environment
Kindness and grace go a very long way. As a professional/business/community partner everyone needs to continue to educate themselves and your staff on those individuals with autism and other exceptionalities. Continue to research ways in which your facility can be more accommodating to those individuals. Hear the concerns and ideas from families with children with autism or other exceptionalities, and partner with those families to promote more inclusion and higher success rates for all parties involved. Again, just remember to continue to show kindness and grace everywhere you go and with everyone you come in contact with.