John Miller, 47, is a teacher of language arts to students with autism in a mainstream setting at Watson B. Duncan Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Miller, himself, is on the autism spectrum, having been diagnosed while in college with Asperger’s syndrome, which is defined by the nonprofit Autism Speaks as an Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the range. In this post, Miller describes the painful, extraordinary path he was forced to walk as a child who was different, but whose condition was misunderstood.
The nonprofit Autism Society describes Autism spectrum disorder as a complex developmental disability, with signs that typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. There is no known single cause of autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in March 2014 that concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States – nearly twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in 54 boys.
The Autism Society describes Asperger’s syndrome like this:
What distinguishes Asperger’s Disorder from classic autism are its less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger’s Disorder may be only mildly affected, and they frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger’s Disorder may just seem like a neurotypical child behaving differently.
Children with autism are frequently viewed as aloof and uninterested in others. This is not the case with Asperger’s Disorder. Individuals with Asperger’s Disorder usually want to fit in and have interaction with others, but often they don’t know how to do it. They may be socially awkward, not understand conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem unengaged in a conversation and not understand the use of gestures or sarcasm.
Their interests in a particular subject may border on the obsessive. Children with Asperger’s Disorder often like to collect categories of things, such as rocks or bottle caps. They may be proficient in knowledge categories of information, such as baseball statistics or Latin names of flowers. They may have good rote memory skills but struggle with abstract concepts.
One of the major differences between Asperger’s Disorder and autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger’s. In fact, children with Asperger’s Disorder frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection or have a rhythmic nature, or may be formal, but too loud or high-pitched. Children with Asperger’s Disorder may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humor, or they may not understand the give-and-take nature of a conversation.
Another distinction between Asperger’s Disorder and autism concerns cognitive ability. While some individuals with autism have intellectual disabilities, by definition, a person with Asperger’s Disorder cannot have a “clinically significant” cognitive delay, and most possess average to above-average intelligence.
Miller has been teaching students with varying degrees of autism for the past 14 years. He attended Florida Atlantic University and has earned bachelors and masters degrees, the latter in exceptional special education. He is the author of “Decoding Dating: A Guide to the Unwritten Social Rules of Dating for Men with Asperger Syndrome,” and is now writing a book about autism and the “myth of normality,” which focuses on societal misconceptions about autism.You can learn more at his website: www.asdindependence.com. Miller calls the empowerment of individuals with autism a “civil rights issue” with serious policy implications. Here is his story, which he said he wants to share to open a national discussion about autism to end the climate of ignore and prejudice in which people on the spectrum often live.
By John Miller
Defying expectations has been a lifetime habit for me. Early on, my parents were told not to expect much. When I was 2 years old, a psychologist told my parents that I was intellectually disabled. Later in elementary school, the diagnosis changed and I was said to be severely learning disabled and capable of only doing a menial job at best when I got older. The common theme throughout my childhood was my parent’s refusal to accept these pronouncements as etched in stone. Thank goodness! Lowered expectations never entered my parent’s language; quite the opposite, and so, as a child, I was exposed by them to countless educational and cultural experiences.
Elementary school was a veritable nightmare for me. When I was not physically or verbally bullied, I was placed in an educational exile just beyond the classroom in the hall, due to my verbosity. To make matters worse, I did not understand social contexts, and eye contact for me was non-existent. During this time, I unwillingly earned the moniker “retard” because I was different. It was my albatross or “Scarlet Letter.”
When I finished elementary school, my parents were informed I would be put in a special program which would have been, for all intents and purposes, the end of my academic path and future. Thankfully, my parents rejected the advice and sent me to a boarding school for students with learning differences. It was an intellectual awakening for me. Instead of making me conform to particular learning styles, teachers found out how I learned best. Smaller classes and fewer disruptions created the conditions for me to flourish. Finally, I found my footing, and books and language became oxygen for me.
Entering college, I was still socially awkward and had little eye contact. Now my new label was “gifted learning disabled.” Always, my parents knew that social skills were a tremendous issue for me. No matter how difficult a social situation was, my parents encouraged and even pushed me at times to engage.
When it seemed that I was destined to become a lifer student, living a monastic existence, I found my calling. In order to make a difference, I decided to complete a masters degree in special education. While in graduate school, I had a professor and mentor named Lydia Smiley, who felt that I had Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. My reaction at the time was shock. In what way was I like the character of “Raymond” from the movie “Rain Man”? The ramifications of the possibility were obvious to me. I wanted to be normal! It took me well over half a decade to find out.
Before I embarked on my teaching journey, my mentor warned me to not publicly disclose my exceptionality. Naively, I believed that people would be open and willing to learn. Unfortunately, it was an unfounded assumption. Once I had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, my openness was disconcerting to a fair amount of educators, some of whom could not accept that they would have to deal on an equal footing with a co-worker with an exceptionality.
Ironically, at the time, I had already begun to present and conduct workshops throughout the United States. Slowly, I was gaining a good reputation as a speaker, due to my unique professional and personal insight. When presenting, I purposefully create a very interactive environment in order to create accessibility and conditions for genuine dialogue. When I speak, it is about the audience and not myself. Humor and storytelling are a very important element because it is my feeling that people will be more receptive towards a dialogue that is interesting and captivating. And when people are engaged, they will more likely internalize and think about what has been said.
Teaching has always been a passion for me. Educating individuals with autism is not a job or a career. Far from it! It is a calling. I’m quite cognizant that how far I have come is not due to my intelligence or tenacity alone, but from those who have made a difference in my life.
When educating students, I do not have a half-glass-empty mentality. There is a need to emphasize their academic strengths and develop the skills that are a challenge. What is most important is to build a foundation that will give them the tools that they need to succeed in their transition to adulthood.
Beyond the importance of skill acquisition, there is a need to educate students with autism utilizing a multifaceted approach that focuses on multi-intelligence schema and visual learning. This, coupled with meta-cognitive strategies and active thinking, allows students to intellectually absorb concepts that were thought in the past to be too difficult for this population. When teaching these students, there is a need to vigilantly gauge comprehension of concepts, as well as to individualize the learning process and inspire them.
Along with education, it is of the utmost importance to strengthen the self esteem of students with autism. From personal experience, I know that students with ASD look at a situation from the worst possible outcome. A teacher must slowly help them build their self-esteem by showing them how to look at situations more realistically and by teaching them to see what they can do rather than what they cannot do. Like anything else, this is a process.
Often, when I do presentations, I am if a person should disclose to others — like a teacher to his/her students — that they are on the spectrum. The answer is not simple but is nuanced and situational. In my case, I feel that I have no choice. It is important for my students to have a role model and know that I have walked in their shoes. I’m not here just to teach curriculum, but to help my students realize that they can succeed and that they can have the same dreams and aspirations as others.
I have done my job if the students I have educated lead fulfilling lives with opportunity.