Morgan Autism Center teacher talks about her experiences and shares her thoughts on finding a profession she loves
by Julie Asamoto, Room 16 teacher
Shortly after my initial hire at Morgan Autism Center in January 1995, I came to the realization that I had found something truly special. I had found a profession that I loved, something that I believed I was meant to do. I felt very fortunate. I worked in three classrooms throughout my six years, and then left in August 2000 to join the circus — true story.
I am a traveler and adventurist at heart, and live for challenge and new experiences. Each vacation, I looked forward to a planned road trip, or traveling to another state or country. When Cirque du Soleil came through town at the beginning of 2000, I ended up meeting the father of my child and touring the country for two-and-a-half years. After the tour, we settled and he worked a permanent show in Orlando, then another in Vegas.
I worked in autism-specific classrooms in the public school systems in both areas, but returned each year to visit my family at Morgan Autism Center. When I finally moved back to the Bay Area at the end of 2009, I began work at a program for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education that was supported by Morgan Autism Center. All were good experiences, but all reminded me of what I had and what I yearned to go back to. Once a position opened up and then Executive Director Jennifer Sullivan gave me the OK, I very happily returned to my home school Aug. 22, 2011.
I have not once regretted my decision to return. I have been working with the most amazing students and co-workers in a totally supportive and nurturing environment. No two days are the same and, very often, things are extremely chaotic and intense. This job is emotionally and physically draining, and there is A LOT of paperwork. Learning how to effectively manage and lead staff is one of the most daunting obstacles for me, a responsibility I did not consider when entering the field of education. Despite these challenges, I get to laugh every day, I get to have fun and I get to share very special moments with my co-workers and students.
I am currently working in a classroom with older students, figuring out ways to best prepare them for their transition to adult programs. This is my first time working with this age group and, admittedly, there has been much trial and error in the endeavor. I have researched and visited local adult programs, learned how to write Transition Plans, and figured out how to re-configure goals, community outings, and the classroom environment to best suit the needs of the students. I also work closely with student families and caregivers, other service providers on the IEP team and the programs the students move on to, in order to make these transitions as positive and successful an experience as possible.
After almost four years of working with this age group, we have successfully supported eight students in their moves to adult programs. I have been fortunate enough to see four of my students move on to Morgan Autism Center’s Adult Program, where I get to visit them and have updates on a regular basis. Some of my other students, however, have made the move to other programs that are either more suited to their needs or are within their funding areas. It is my hope that in the near future I can be involved in the creation of an extension of our current Adult Program, so that we can offer even more of our graduates an opportunity to continue on with us.
Kate, who graduated from my classroom last year, was one of those students who was not a fit for our current Adult Program. In the three years that Kate was in my room, there was never a dull moment. This young lady brought with her a very tangible energy. I quickly learned that one of Kate’s favorites was “The Wizard of Oz”, clips of which were being used as reinforcers for her after work sessions. Kate’s fixation with watching that movie became so intense, that it was very difficult to direct her attention to other tasks. In the end, we made the decision that the movie would no longer be available to her in the classroom. This was not an easy change to make for Kate or for staff, but it was a good reminder of how important it can be to keep powerful reinforcers in check. We did, by the way, continue to successfully incorporate her favorite characters, lines, and songs from the movie into her work sessions. After a great deal of collaboration and consistent practice, we were able to sever her reliance on this crutch, and break through to the vibrant, energetic, and loving young lady inside. Once Kate figured out that we were really there for her, she let us in and began to make real progress.
I am currently working with a young man named Cameron who has been in my classroom for two years. During that time, we have seen him make significant gains in his educational progress. When Cameron first moved to my room, he had scabs on his face and body from continual picking, he was dropping to the ground and refusing to get up, and by 1 p.m. — as forewarned by his previous teacher — he was “done” and would refuse to comply with demands. On our first community outing, Cameron literally dove into a candy display; frantically grabbing at every bag of Skittles he could get his hands on. Today it is very rewarding to see Cameron happy, virtually scab-free, working through the 1 p.m. cut-off time and much better at controlling his impulses on shopping trips.
Individual success can be a long and arduous process. There are no specific techniques that we use across the board for individuals on the spectrum. Just as each one of our students is unique, so is each of their educational programs. In essence, it’s a matter of setting forth your expectations, following through, and identifying and building upon the individual’s special interests and qualities. Even then things and people can change; it’s a constant evolution and a true test of patience.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing individuals on the autism spectrum. I am often asked about what I do, but feel I am unable to adequately express its significance. It is not easy to describe those special bonds we create in the classroom with students and with staff, those very special moments filled with love and laughter we experience on a daily basis, the emotional and physical intensity of working with these students and their families, and those moments of triumph that keep us coming back for more.
Morgan Autism Center is my home away from home. It is a place where I can effectively make use of my skills, and a place where I truly belong. I could not do this without the support of a most amazing team in Room 16, the advice and encouragement of my colleagues, the direction and leadership of administration, and the level of trust and communication we have with the families we serve. There is a true collaborative effort and passion to serve this very special population of individuals at Morgan Autism Center, and I am very fortunate to be a part of the family.