“Your son is autistic.”
When I first heard those words in 1991, autism was not the epidemic that it is today. New children were not diagnosed every 20 minutes, and few researchers were searching for a cure. It was a relatively rare diagnosis and little was known about how to care for autistic children, let alone educate them.
A mother can react to the news that her child is autistic in many different ways. I became obsessed with finding special education schools that offered some hope for my son, Mitchell. As a family, we selected the most respected private program in our area and learned everything we could about autism. Then when Mitchell was ready to enter the public school system, we moved to ensure he was in the best school district and we carefully monitored his progress.
Mitchell’s teacher provided our family with frequent reports that indicated he was doing well in the classroom. However, after several years, Mitchell hadn’t progressed beyond his 30-word vocabulary and, at one point, the topic of school would just make him scream. In my heart, I knew something was wrong.
One day I decided to follow my instincts by unexpectedly visiting Mitchell’s classroom. I found Mitchell playing by himself in a corner of the room while the higher functioning students were being taught. I hoped this was an unusual event. But as I continued to monitor the situation, I realized that the educators felt they lacked the tools to help Mitchell— and they had quit trying. The situation was heartbreaking and infuriating. If this was happening in one of the best special education programs in our state, what was happening in other classrooms? Frustrated, I pulled Mitchell out of school.
What had I done? I wasn’t a teacher and I never intended to become one.
However, I believed in my son. I knew he could show progress. I became focused on finding teaching strategies that would achieve results for autistic children. I didn’t want the latest trendy educational program; I wanted educational strategies that offered real evidence of progress. Eventually, through a lot of trial and error, I used this research to create a comprehensive suite of special education tools that I could use with Mitchell.
The tools I created were:
- research-based, combining a number of teaching strategies that universities proved had accomplished results.
- progressive and integrated, built upon one another to reinforce key concepts and advance learning.
- engaging and easy to execute, making learning fun for Mitchell and straight-forward for me to implement.
- measurable, allowing me to set expectations, track Mitchell’s progress and see tangible results.
Using this system of learning tools, Mitchell improved from a 30-word vocabulary to a 275-word vocabulary in just six months. I was able to place him back into the school system, where Mitchell could interact with other students.
I returned to visit the educators who initially hadn’t been able to make progress with Mitchell and showed them the results. They were shocked. And soon special education teachers throughout Washington State began to ask me for copies of my tools. These teachers also started seeing results. Children who didn’t have any sight words started progressing to more than 75 words in five months. One school saw increases in communicative speech between 200-400 percent for its special needs students. Success stories like these spread beyond Washington, and soon teachers in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and even Canada began asking me for the tools. I realized that through my desire to help my own son, I created a system that could help special needs children everywhere.
Acknowledging this responsibility, I made another informal career change from teacher to entrepreneur. I launched my own company, Creative Teaching CAP, a special education organization dedicated to creating measurable learning tools that are proven to help autistic and special needs students thrive. My hope is that by launching Creative Teaching CAP, other parents and teachers will never feel as alone as I did when I started this journey. Also, by using these tools, we can join together and revolutionize special education programs across America.
Nearly two decades after I first received my son’s autism diagnosis, Mitchell can now speak and read over 1,200 words. I look back on this entire experience with pride in all that we have accomplished and anticipation for the progress we will make in the future. I have found that in helping my son achieve his full potential, I too have achieved. I now understand the one word in our vocabulary that sums up what it means to fight and persevere in the midst of unimaginable challenges and seemingly insurmountable odds: “mom.”