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!):
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.