This started out as a comment in response to the two excellent companion pieces about a teenager with aspergers here and here. They were sparked, partially, I think by this seed about autism.
I wrote here about my experiences as a teacher - which is something I tried in between my special ed work described below and my current job.
This is my first time writing an article about these specific circumstances and I'm going to keep parts of it somewhat vague, intentionally, for reasons of confidentiality.
When I started working in the special ed field one thing I could not understand is why more workers were not more well read. I'm big on the "knowledge is power" meme and so when I began working with someone who was both deaf and autistic I began reading all I could about autism.
The problem is that if someone is highly functioning enough to write a memoir then they are going to be so dramatically different than the guys (autism and aspergers in females is rare) I worked with as to be pretty unhelpful.
(I also started learning sign language but quickly realized that it wouldn't really help me since he didn't use more than five to ten sign language commands himself so it'd be a bit like learning Spanish to work with someone who is Hispanic but doesn't speak Spanish.)
It was also a fascinating albeit baffling experience to compare what I was reading with what I was seeing. Many materials, for example, will tell you that those who are autistic or aspergers won't look you in the face and yet those I was working with (while the guy I described was my primary charge there were others I'd help with) would read my face.
I quickly learned to read their faces too and like a card shark would determine their tells, the cues telling me when they are content and, more importantly, when they were mad.
With those guys, as well as with the special needs adults I work with these days, they will read my face and one of the hardest parts is to hide your emotions because if you show frustration or anger they will too.
I talked in this piece about the power of suggestion and much of that was based on this work. In that piece I focused on how something you do will be copied by others and that's also true with emotions. If someone is about to get angry and they see you are angry the odds seem to increase exponentially that they will indeed throw something. My goal that first week at that school was to avoid being hit. By the second week the goal was modified to "don't get hit by flying furniture." I succeeded with that second goal if not the first. One of my most surreal moments came when a student threw a table and I had to choose between saving a computer from being hit or saving a student (geeks be damned I chose the teen student)
Anyway long story short each student was different. Some were autistic, some were m.r., some bipolar but there were as many differences between those who were autistic - be they the pre-k ones I later worked with - or the teens or the adults. Some might revel in touch or look you intensely in the eyes while others didn't want either to happen.
My big lesson - the most important thing I learned - was that what was most important wasn't being knowledgeable about autism or even about a person's history or behavior plan but what mattered most was having an individual relationship with that person, making a personal connection. If you made an effort to do that and to understand their dislikes or likes and routine, generally, you'd do fine.