Teaching MY Beautiful, Autistic Boy

I’ve got a lot on my mind.  For one thing, in a few days I will boarding a plane to Vegas and presenting at the TpT Conference.  Excited and nervous doesn’t begin to cover it.
But what is most on my mind is about my son, Jack.  I’ve made the decision to teach him this year.  (I didn’t teach my older daughter, although I think it would have been great if I had, I just felt like I was too much of a mommy and not enough of a “teacher”to her.)  
Jack’s coming to first grade and although I have total faith in the teachers at my school, I still feel like it’s a better fit for him.  My husband says at the very least  I am buying him another year to grow and mature, to minimize his anxiety and stress, and to just experience it with him.  I agree.  But it doesn’t mean I am not terrified.
Jack is on the spectrum (high functioning…and in my opinion, like what was once Asperger’s Syndrome).   You can read about our other struggles {here}
This summer, I have been on Pinterest pinning ideas to my autism board for classroom behaviors and motivation.  I’ve been speaking each visit I have with his doctor, therapist and my special ed friends about how to handle things.  The major thing I’ve learned in this whole process is that people, experts, rarely know more than I do.  I don’t mean to say I’m as smart as they are, only that there are no “easy answer”…no “solutions” to the problems.  
I’m reconsidering everything I do in my classroom.  I am trying to decide seat placements and behavior management, reconsidering how much stuff I have on the walls.  I’m buying a sensory seat cushion for him and trying to prepare schedule cards and IF/Then Charts…there’s SO much to do.  
Jack has made a lot of progress.
But the other day at his therapist’s office, I left the room for some informal testing and was quickly asked to return.  I entered the room to find Jack on the floor, under a blanket, in the fetal position, refusing to come out.  He had only been in the room working on puzzles for a matter of minutes.  Basically he realized he missed a question and shut down.
Why does that bother me?
Because in a month, I won’t only be his mom…I will be his teacher.  I will be responsible for his learning, but not just his…16 other students, too. I will somehow have to balance their needs with his.  And trust me, he’s needy.   I’ve always said he was high maintenance…and frankly, he still is.
I guess my question is, how do you motivate someone with whom praise and positive reinforcement doesn’t work?  Jack is not extrinsically motivated AT ALL.  He doesn’t give a rip about what you think or if you said he did a good job.  It’s almost like he doesn’t hear it, he just nods and says “Ok” or “alright” the same way he would if you told him the sky was blue.  His response is like, “ok, but why are you telling me this?”  The usual stuff doesn’t work with him…i.e “I like how so and so is doing such and such” and he’s completely oblivious that you mean for him to do what they are doing  You have to be explicit with EVERYTHING.    
I’ve thought long and hard about it.  I know that the only way to get him motivated is to make it relevant to him.  I have to make it something he wants to do…to make it something that matters to him.  Easier said than done.  
There’s only so much you can relate to video games.
He got the Skylander’s Game for his 7th birthday last month…he had wanted it for what seemed like forever.  He had spent months watching videos about it, collecting figures for it, talking about it ALL the time.  He finally gets it and beats it in less than a day.  He walked away and hasn’t touch Skylanders again.  His interests are obsessive, but sometimes fleeting.  
He took an IQ test at school (without the accommodations I had requested) and scored barely average.  He had already taken an IQ test months before with his therapist and had scored just barely in the gifted range. I’m frustrated by the tests and the discrepancies I see every day.  I KNOW he’s smart.  I know he has the capacity to learn, I mean, he knows everything about every video game and Dr Who episode ever made.  But at the same time,  he struggles with everything in the school setting.  He is upside down in his desk, literally head on the floor when you’re trying to teach him.  He is anxious and easily frustrated, with little ability to work through it (without a lengthy break).  No amount of praise will motivate him.  

How do I teach him?  How do I get him ready to go into the academic world and manage?  Someone please tell me how I prepare him for the misunderstandings that he is bound to experience? How can I increase his attention and focus toward learning things he has no interest in?
I am so scared I will make it worse.  I’m afraid I will expect too much from him and that by the end of the day, he will be sick of me.  I am scared that all my hair will be gray by the end of the year and that I am not fully prepared for the amount of work and stress I am taking on this year.  I am scared he will hate it.  He already isn’t crazy about school,  what if he feels that way about me by the end of the year?
What if I can’t reach him or motivate him?   
I know, my husband tells me to stop worrying. And I know my beautiful boy will love me not matter what and that I can’t make him “worse”…and that I am being overly critical.  I just worry about those times later in life when he isn’t with me.  I want so badly for people to see what I see, this boy with ENORMOUS potential.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing more of your journey here on your blog! I understand your concerns. Due to my son's anxiety disorder and auditory processing disorder, I debated teaching him in 2nd grade this year, too. Every situation is different and in the end, we decided that I shouldn't pursue that option. I know that you will be the best advocate that Jack could possibly have. Your husband is right! Nothing will change the love he has for his mom! That doesn't mean that you won't have bad days though. I think that you are being very realistic and preparing for every possible scenario. I hope that you will share anything that is successful with Jack in your classroom. I teach several students who are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum and motivation is definitely tricky. I look forward to any advice you are willing to share! Good luck with your conference presentation! I wish I could attend!

  2. Oh Jennifer, I wish I knew the right things to say to help you!! But I do know this: you are an awesome teacher, and an awesome mommy, and I KNOW that being in your class is the best for him. It will allow him to be in a classroom where the teacher truly loves him, and will be willing to do whatever it takes to meet him where he is. You are strong, and stop worrying!!! You've got this!!!

    OAN, I can't wait to board the plane with you to Vegas, I know you'll rock it out!!!


  3. Jennifer, last year I had a student in 2nd grade who was autistic. It was very difficult. We had visual timers, special cards that cued him to do things like sit down, he went on a lot of break walks and of course there was a lot of documenting and repetition. The thing I had to keep in mind when I felt like I was failing was that he moves at his own speed and I don't need to worry about him meeting the same benchmarks as everyone else. As long as he was meeting his IEP goals he was making progress and he was "passing" . It is stressful but it is also the most rewarding. Smething that I didn't expect was how helpful all the kids were. My student would have meltdowns when the lunch menu changed or is there weren't any cinnamon buns left at breakfast. My class started to save cinnamon buns for him. They would share. To make sure he had one or they would help him by repeating activities he missed when he was out of the room. I think sometimes we worry about how other kids may react too but they always surprise,me with how sweet and helpful they are. Good luck. I can't wait to hear how it is going.

  4. Praying for you! There is never an easy answer for autistic kiddos – what may work one day – doesn't the next. All I can say is go with your gut – you know him better than most. He is lucky that you will be able to teach him for a year. Good Luck!
    *I have always had a special place in my heart for autistic kiddos – they make any success with them that much more gratifying.


  5. Oh Jennifer!! I have no answers, but I know in my heart you're doing the right thing!! It will most likely be challenging at times, but also so rewarding!! Thinking of you and hoping we can get together this summer! <3

  6. I am not a teacher per say, but I do have a son with autism who sounds very, very much like your Jack. Last year, I homeschooled him – obviously VERY different from a classroom setting, but like your son, my son has to see the value in what he is being taught, he has to buy in to what you are telling him, and it has to have some relation to something that he deems important, otherwise it is no dice and you might as well be talking to a wall. As you know just by being the parent of a child with autism, you are going to do just fine and you will do everything humanly possible to have a positive outcome.. and you will, because it's what you have to do. No one knows your son more than you do. You have a huge advantage over any other person who may teach him. My biggest recommendation – have a token board with an immediate reward. The rewards can be things that are highly motivating – small toys, etc. Start small, with interaction on things he isn't truly interested in being enough for a token, and ultimately a reward, and move up expectations from there. You're on the right track as far as gearing things to his interests, but I would bet that will be really difficult in an entire classroom of children. These are things that have worked miracles for us, both in the classroom, and in our homeschool classroom. I'd be happy to share my experiences if it will help, simply from a parenting perspective as the parent of a super sweet, but occasional tough-nut-to-crack!

  7. It sounds like you have your principal on your side! Since they are allowing you to teach your son. You can do this! You have a lot of people praying for you and we know that you are a fabulous teacher and how much you love your son and all of your students! I have worked at church with a child that has autism. She is 3 years old and I love her as if she were my child. I guess my biggest advice is just to be understanding, calm, and love him no matter what, which I know you do anyway! 🙂
    Mrs. Black's Bees

  8. You are absolutely RIGHT in being both a mother and classroom teacher for your son! Who better than you to meet his needs, recognize his giftedness, and make school a safe place for him to grow and learn? Sure there are going to be days that are nightmares, but I think the joy in your journey will outweigh them. All of the suggestions given in the above comments are worthy, as are your gut instincts on what is best for your son. Trust your heart and all will be well…..

  9. Hello Jennifer! Thanks for sharing this heartfelt and honest post about Jack. Who better to turn to than a world full of teachers that encounter Autism everyday (even if they don't know it!) My son Garyn sounds just like your Jack. Very smart, Asperger's, video game expert, won the game in three days-hasn't played it since, hates stickers and wonders what the all the hoopla is around everyone trying to give him a darn sticker for being good…I was thinking about my Garyn's success this year and how he achieved it; he won his school's award for the student that was the "best" this school year. And my, it wasn't like that two years ago; heck, not even last year. I think a big difference was having a teacher that was 1) prepared for him in advance. She was not an expert at the disorder, but did her best to understand and try to make school a pleasant experience for him. Because lets face it…if he's having a bad day, so is she! So she did all the textbook Autism things..have the schedule on the board, overhead clocks, you could also put the light sensitive shields over your overhead lights to dim things a bit. Garyn also has a set of headphones to "tune" out the madness if he needs to. Garyn was blessed to have a full-time aide by his side each day. One good thing she does is take him out of the situation when she sees he's about to lose it. Our school has a sensory room (because of Garyn!) and takes him there when she needs to. Have you ever tried one of those big exercise balls for him to sit on? That might get some of his willies out. But in all honesty Jennifer, I think the simple fact of knowing that him Mommy will also be his teacher, will be motivation enough. Don't worry (as much as you can!) and take it over like a storm. He's never had you in that position of "classroom teacher" in a formal sense, so I'm sure he'll be amazed at just how much you're needed and what a wonderful teacher you really are. I would have a "buddy" classroom he could go to if he seems like he needs a break or have one of you students this coming year take him for a walk around the building when things get rough. Let us know how things are going…

  10. Jennifer. I am cheering you on as you approach this new challenge. I have enjoyed reading about your decisions with your son and feel like watching you go through this has caused me to think about my teaching and what I can do to better handle autistic students in my classroom. Thanks for letting me learn with you. Carol

  11. I will be rooting and praying for you! Can't wait to hear about all (and learn from) the wonderful things you will do this year with you little man. 🙂

  12. Hi Jennifer! I taught a boy last year similar to your son. He was the sweetest guy and I loved him to bits. But, yeah, bad days happened and they could be rough. Fortunately he had a full time aid and a sensory room like Cara described. I don't have anything new to add to the discussion, just wanted you to know I think you'll do a fabulous job. You seem like a very smart and together person. All the best at the conference!

  13. Beautiful post! I think it's amazing that you can teach your son in your classroom. As mentioned, I'm sure there will be challenges and bad days, but the overall experience will no doubt be a blessing. I know it was already suggested, but I've had a lot of success using social stories with students with autism in my classroom. They are basic and simple, but it's the perfect reference for them to go back to. I would also suggest maybe doing a social story using a site like Voki.com or something like that where you can choose an avatar to speak and he can watch the video. I remember seeing a site at one time where you could make it like a cartoon too but I can't remember what it's called. Just an idea. I'm sure you have tons of other tricks up your sleeve. You are such an amazing teacher and I'm sure an amazing mom! You are going to rock this new adventure!! Can't wait to hear more about it as the year progresses. Good luck and have faith in yourself and how wonderful you are!

    First Grade Smiles

  14. I, too, have a child with special needs and he is going into kindergarten (& I teach K in a different district). I can appreciate how you feel and really admire your decision to teach him yourself. As an 'old' SPED teacher and K teacher now, a few things popped out at me…..1. Have you spoke with his K teacher on his routine and what worked/didn't? That could be a place to start….2. My little boy has a sensory processing disorder and I read your child is showing signs too (hanging upside down in the seat)…I am sure you are doing therapies for this (If not, consider having him privately evaluated by an Occupational Therapist=Amazing!!) but we recently had HUGE success in giving him Omega 3/Fish oil for kids from our Co-op…I know ASD and SPD are different, but often ASD kids exhibit SPD and it could help? Our little boy couldn't sit still and be engaged in non-motivating tasks for longer than 3 minutes & he has to have an extremely routine oriented/structured environment and would still throw a tantrum multiple times a day and he hasn't had any in 11 days…this is nothing short of a miracle in our house! It seemed so simple and had a huge impact on him, who knew? 3. You identified motivators in your writing…video games, Dr. Who. What about the iPad as a motivator? This could allow you to download apps and tailor them to his interests…4. What about social stories. Again, lots of great apps for this. This could help work on his anxieties and frustration in himself…5. Last, the IQ thing….I hope you have been told this, but just in case…Doing an IQ on a child at his young age yields very unpredictable results (as it seems you have found out!) You said that you know he is very bright and CAN learn, isn't this enough? It seems you have an accurate label for his disability, which opens many doors to learning and behavioral strategies as well as specialists. What purpose does an IQ serve? Just curious 🙂 You are on the right track! Keep it up and I can't wait to hear more on your journey!

  15. Hi Jennifer, thank you for sharing this with our teacher-blogger community. I think this is an amazing challenge that you are taking on by being with your son's teacher and mom! You must have faith that this very fact will have a positive impact on his school day!

    Just my 2 cents: have you looked into Responsive Classroom? I just did a PD on it and I am excited to use it this coming school year. Basically, it's about building a classroom community and tying together everyone's successes and challenges. You actually take out the extrinsic motivation and try to create intrinsic ones for each student. It's about making social and emotional learning equal to academics!

    I'm probably not doing justice to it here, but I recommend you look at their website and YouTube channel sometime and think about how you could incorporate those ideas into your wonderful classroom.

    Ventaneando: A Window Into First Grade Bilingüe

  16. I am thinking of you and Jack a lot these days. I have an autistic child in my TK class this year and the transitions for him have been tough. I am always looking for things to help him. Our special ed team hasn't really helped at all. Each day, I am trying to see what works. You will be great!

    Kinder Princess

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