Autism Angel: Mary Hendricks

Once upon a time, I was a very stressed-out and scared mom. That was last week – no, I’m just kidding. I’m talking about my own personal annus horribilis. The year was 2003. We’d just received our autism diagnosis. My husband was working on a long-term assignment out of state (Kentucky). He was only able to come home every other weekend. We sold our first home and moved out of state to Maryland. I had knee surgery. And my father died. All this happened in a period of five months – I kid you not. I was a mess.

As only someone who’s had a child diagnosed with autism may know, after the shock wears off and the anti-depressants kick in, you go into search and destroy mode. I spent months doing research on the internet, calling parents and experts, going to evaluation and therapy appointments, and purging our house of casein and gluten. I was determined to do any and everything to help my son.

I found a program for Barrett that I loved at Emory University, but couldn’t afford the tuition (or the two hour round trip drive, twice a day). Then I discovered a public school system with the very same program – in Howard County Maryland, where my husband grew. When the universe sends you a message like that, you listen.

My first contact in Maryland was Mary Hendricks, who at the time was a resource teacher for early intervention services. She changed my life. We spoke on the phone many times and I cried so much that if I’d been her, I would have stopped taking my calls. I’d been looking at programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia. I didn’t know what to do, and confessed as much. I’ll never forget what Mary said to me: “Come on up, I know we can help you and your son.” And you know what? She was right.

Mary is kind, loving, and brilliant. She has a gift and it’s evident every time she interacts with a special needs child. She’s a ray of sunshine and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without a smile on her face. She has had helped hundreds (maybe thousands?) of families in her thirty plus years teaching. Her enormous capacity for empathy helped me when I was in a very dark place. I was so stricken with grief during my very first IEP meeting that I cried through half of it. Rich was still in Kentucky at the time and I was all alone in a new place. She walked me out to my car and gave me a hug – a really good one. It’s a memory that has never gone away.

Mary is full of innovative ideas and a fantastic resource for anything related to special education. Her son Sean was in high school when I met and hired him to hang out with the boys and help them interact with each other. I was in no condition to engage in floor time, and then came baby Audrey, so I really needed his help! Sean is now married and a speech therapist in Baltimore. Oh time!

And I will forever be grateful to Mary. I’m honored to introduce you to this Autism Angel (although her expertise with special needs goes beyond autism!):

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On one of our road trips, Mary drove down to Annapolis to meet us for lunch, so she could see the kids!

What made you want to go into special education?

My first introduction to individuals with disabilities was on a personal level, my cousin, Mary Angela.  As a young teenager, I could not help but notice the significant delays in development.  Mary Angela was four years old, not walking, not talking and needing full care by my aunt.    I found myself offering to feed her, and walk her so that my aunt could enjoy the company of other adults.  Mary Angela was not permitted educational services, because at that time, children with severe delays in development were not afforded an education.    I remember thinking how unfair that was!

At the same time, my mother began asking about my intentions of a career. No sooner did I mention my interest in working with children with disabilities, was I set to volunteer at a summer program for children with disabilities.  That was how my mother worked!  As the story goes, that was all she wrote!  I loved my summer work, returned for several years as a volunteer, and worked my way up to the director of the program.

What kind of degree did you earn?

I have a B.S. in Special Education and a M.S in Communications Disorders, with a concentration in Reading

What kind of certifications do you have?

I am certified Birth-21 Special Education and Reading. I also have an MSDE certificate for Birth-Three Years of age.

How long have you been teaching – total and in special education?

I taught in the public school system for 35 years. 33 of those years were spent with birth-5 year olds.  I spent two years in an elementary school positon.

You’ve been in the field for a long time, what changes (or trends) have you noticed in teaching, and in how the students are included in the school environment?

When I first started teaching in 1978, it was the final year of implementation of the law 94-142, now known as IDEA. Up until that time, individuals with disabilities like my cousin, were not permitted a public education.  I have seen many things change over the years, and now there is thoughtful and full discussion about what it means to receive a public education.  One thing that concerns me is that I sometimes think we are forgetting that the “I” in IDEA means individualized.  And so inclusive practices does not mean a one size fits all approach.    We need to be sure that a continuum for services and placements remains in place that can meet the needs of all.

I know you’ve “retired,” but you’re still consulting, and now teaching at the collegiate level! What compels you to stay in the game?

I know that I choose the right career, and so I want to share that message with others.   I feel that I have a lot of information and experience to share, but I also get to share the passion for my work with young children and their families.

Do you have any personal experiences (outside the classroom) with autism?

My cousin was never diagnosed, however, in retrospect, I believe she might have had RETTS Syndrome.  She displayed all of the characteristics of that diagnosis.

My nephew Andrew is an adult with Aspergers Syndrome.   He is 24 years if age, and is working as a web designer.  It took him a long time to get help, as he was always just considered a behavior problem in school.

What is the best part of your job?

Now, the best part, is I get to share what I have learned over the years to current and future teachers.  And I hope that the lessons that I have learned about working with families will help them when they are feeling frustrated and challenged.

What are the challenges?

I rarely get to work with children. I miss that immensely.

Do the parents drive you crazy? Be honest!

There were times in my “youth” when the parents drove me crazy. Then I had children of my own, and realized it is so easy to say “I would never…”.  I think what hurt the most was when I was doing everything that I could, and that was not enough.  And even though “I get it” on one level,  I always wished the parents could see how much I believed in their vision for their child.  As I have gotten older, I have become the strongest advocate for the family.  And that is what I try to teach in my classes.    Until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea the joys and the challenges they face.

In your opinion, what can schools do to promote awareness and inclusion of special needs students?

Start as early as possible. Inclusive experiences can happen immediately.  Schools can assist families in setting up meet and greets, playdates, and inclusive preschool classrooms.  I also think that coaching and supporting typically developing children to be responsive and helpful in the school environment can go a long way.   There is benefit to all when that happens.  Most people think that compassion and caring are qualities that can be developed when this happens.  There are also leadership skills that can be nurtured and we could be developing future educators in the process.

What do you wish people understood about autism?

Every child with autism is an individual, and needs to be treated as an individual.

What have your students taught you?

Joy and patience.

How can parents help?

I think most educators would want parents to know that we all care! And sometimes the system gets in the way of doing what our hearts tell us we should do.

I know that special education teachers tend to get personally involved (and I know they’re not supposed to, but thankfully they do. Is it hard to send them on their way?

It is the hardest thing we have to do! But, it is important for educators to trust the people in the next classroom.  And some of that letting go, builds capacity for the families, and for the children.

What do you remember about Barrett from way back♥?

Oh little Barrett!!!! You were adorable… but I sometimes could not tell if you were Hunter or Barrett!  You were two years old when you moved to Howard County Maryland.  I met you in a parking lot at Atholton Elementary school, where you eventually started school in Miss Linda’s class.    I had talked on the phone with your mom for many hours!  And then I met with both your mom and dad to talk some more about the move to Maryland.    I was so glad you decided to move to Maryland because I knew that you would love our schools!


Ellicott City was a stop back on our first road trip in 2010, so we could visit old friends. And Mary got to meet our new edition – Cammy (who was not quite three years-old)


Sean with Barrett. Oh, I wish I could have found the pictures from when Bear was two & three and Sean was in high school!


Sean with Hunter & Aud.

I’m linking up with FTFS this week, because the prompt is, “if I only had…” I shudder to think if only I had never met Mary. Our host are Kristi from Finding Ninee and Deidre from Deidre’s Daily Dose.

Please share comments or questions for Mary below.

25 thoughts on “Autism Angel: Mary Hendricks”

  1. What a wonderful interview and tribute t o Mary. And honestly just loved getting to know her here and how she shaped Barrett and your lives for the better. Hugs and thank you again for sharing Mary with us here today!! <3

  2. Oh wonderful that you took the time to honor Mary like this. My 28-year-old nieces has Rett Syndrome. She’s my sister’s daughter, the first grandchild of 25! She was diagnosed at the age of two. I remember one teacher in particular that was, I swear, an angel in the flesh. She put a smile on my sister’s face at a time when I hadn’t seen a smile on her face for so long because of how heartbroken she was over her daughter’s diagnosis. So reading this makes me want to give Mary (and you!) a great big hug because I know what a difference the kindness of a teacher can make.

    1. Thanks Julie. How’s your niece doing now? I’m doing the math and I hope that at the time she was diagnoses that there were enough resources. If this was going to happen to us, I’m glad we were fortunate to be part of “the wave.” As a community, we are now sadly so big, that we have a loud voice and many options.

      1. Unfortunately, not well. Yes, there were resources up until I think the age of 19. But ever since then, it’s just been my sister and her husband caring for her in the home, with a respite worker who comes about 8 hours a week. And with Rett, there’s all sort of physical disabilities, too, such as severe chronic digestive issues, so it’s a hard life for my sister. Hoping Science makes some progress soon; sounds like there is a drug somewhere on the horizon but a ways off I’m sure. Thanks again, Allie.

  3. Thank you for introducing us to Mary! What a star. I loved this part: Every child with autism is an individual, and needs to be treated as an individual.

  4. I’m on my little laptop so I didn’t see Mary’s interview coming. When I got to that part, I saw “Awww I didn’t know we would get to MEET Mary.” I got teary eyed. Love her answers and its nice to see when someone retires that they don’t give up what they were gifted with.

  5. What a gem. Thank you so very much for the introduction to Mary. I can only imagine how many families she has touched and improved. The fact that she continues to spread her knowledge now that she is retired? Perfection. My late father, a much loved paediatrician, fought to enable retirees to continue to work and share their wealth of knowledge. While he worked with dozens and dozens of Marys I know he and yours would have gotten along like a house on fire.

  6. Thank you for sharing Mary and her amazing compassion and warmth for us! (And thank you Mary for all you do!) I’m touched by all she has done for your family and many others, as well as your deep gratitude for her. Like the best educators, I’m sure she feels just as much gratitude to have met Barrett and your family, as you feel toward her.

  7. This is awesome, Allie! I love that you showcased Mary for Finish the Sentence. Tucker had a teacher in preschool autism class that I’ll never forget. We keep in touch still and she’s amazing and made the biggest difference in all of our lives!!! <3

    1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – teachers can make of break you! Fortunately we have been extremely lucky in the realm – both for Bear and the other kids.

  8. Oh dear.. little Bear photos are too cute for me today! So cute!!!
    I love so much what you did with this prompt. It’s a tear-jerker today. So grateful for Autism Angels, and all Earth Angels.

  9. It’s a beautiful story. Wish I knew about Mary when my TBI daughter was 3. We didn’t live that far from Howard County. How did you ever reach her and would love to know your research methods. I always thought I would go into special education once all my kids were school aged but I have been so jaded by the special ed process and don’t think I could ever say the “school line”.

    1. I just read everything I could get my hands on – and used parent support message board to guide me. The real key was when the school at Emory U causally mentioned that only one other place used their model (I’ve forgotten the name!). When she said, “the school system in Howard County Maryland,” I almost fell out of my chair. I went home and called the county’s early intervention center, and she’s who answered the phone.

  10. My two youngest children are adopted and they have been ours since they were babies. I was just so excited to have the children I’d prayed so long for — I never considered that as these children grew abandonment issues and hereditary issues could become all consuming at times. I understand the relief when you find someone who understands. Who seems “to get” your child. And then to see your child mature and make positive steps. So encouraging to hear of Sean and how well he is doing in a career he loves.

    1. Thanks Jamie,. Yes, find someone who “get” you child is HUGE. I’ve been pleasant surprised that over the years a number of my baby sitter/caregivers have gone on to be speech or occupational therapist. I like to k=think my child played a part in that:)!

  11. THANK GOD FOR MARY!!! My heart just blows UP when I read about angels like her! (And my eyes get wet.)

    I swear God adds an extra special layer of miraculous strength, wisdom, patience, generosity, and compassion to some of his beloved children. There are few masterpieces He creates for such significant work in this world, serving and giving beyond measure to others- and MARY is one of them.

    Mary- I’m so grateful for you. THANK YOU for pouring your heart, your time, your effort and energy into the children and parents and families who need exactly someone like you. You are a gift to them all. I’m certain of that, just by reading Allie’s story about you.

    Allie, I’m SO grateful you found Mary. I cannot imagine how you even survived that season of your life. I just keep shaking my head and sighing, thinking about it. You are such an incredibly strong woman.

  12. Remember that shock and IEP meeting? Feels kind of silly now that you have all this experience doesn’t it? I’m glad you got through it and was inspired to help so much. I’m on the autism spectrum, with a kid on the spectrum, and a nephew, an aunt, my grandfather… I was expecting it. It seems to always hit the first born in my family, so I had no shock period. I knew a good 2 years before diagnosis about my daughter because I know it too well. I’m cool with it. It’s not a death thing or that disabling. It’s just different.

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