Friday, February 13, 2009

Interview with a Special Educator


I've had the good luck to interview Eileen Magan, an expert from Maryland, who has worked with Aspies and autists in a variety of settings. Among other things, she's been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, where she taught a 13-year-old Aspie. (Some of the most generous people I've ever known were in the Peace Corps, and she does not seem like an exception.)

Eileen and her father Alan Magan now have their own café, Chesapeake Gardens, where they've developed some gluten-free/dairy-free soups which they hope will help autistic children. Some people believe that gluten-free/dairy-free food ameliorates some of the issues associated with autism and AS, and that may be true on an individual basis. (For that matter, they may also help some NTs.)

Meanwhile, Eileen is finishing up her Master's degree in Special Education, after which she hopes to teach at a charter school in Baltimore. She's been kind enough to share some of her experience with us.

1. Could you please describe briefly your work with people on the spectrum? What were their ages?

I've worked with people on the spectrum since I was 15, so over 10 years. Honestly the ages and situations have ranged -- I've worked with people from age 3 to in their mid-40's, with everything from 1:1 ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] therapy to summer camps for people with disabilities.

2. How has working with them been different from working with NTs? What were the most important challenges?

It really depends on the age -- a lot of work has been working with young children on the spectrum, it which case the important challenge has been social. A lot of times the children are taught rote social conversation without ever understanding what it MEANS. [Emphasis in original]

For instance, I worked with a 6-year-old with Asperger's who was taught whenever he cried, a therapist would ask "Why are you crying?" He would say "Because I am sad." However, during a Floortime play session I tried to explore further - "Why are you sad?" He responded "Because I am glad." Since the "correct response" was "Because I am sad" and I had asked a follow-up question, he simply assumed he had answered "incorrectly" and had to come up with another response.

A lot of times teaching how to respond socially isn't necessarily the best approach if the person doesn't understand the emotions they're experiencing or the reason for the social context.

3. How do you think their situations affected them most?

It depends where they are on the spectrum. If the autism is more severe, even basic communication might be a challenge. If they have Asperger's, it might be mostly social

4. What does it take to successfully work with people on the spectrum?

I think it takes empathy and patience, but also a sense of humor. Sometimes by attempting to be too politically correct with someone on the spectrum you're really just talking down to them instead of trying to relate. When working/talking with people of a similar age, sometimes I think it's more appropriate to tell them you didn't understand/appreciate a certain comment or remark than trying to act polite and politically correct.

5. Do you plan to work with people on the spectrum in the future? If so, what (if anything) would you do differently? Also, what would you advise others planning to work with people on the spectrum?

After working almost exclusively with children with autism in Romania, I'd definitely like to focus on autism in the future. It's hard to say what I would do differently, since working in Romania is a very unusual circumstance. But I'd advise (and probably take my own advice moreso) what I said for Question #4.

6. How do you think people on the spectrum can best overcome their distinctive challenges?

By figuring out what works best for them. For people in general, I think there is always a decision to be made of whether it would be easier to overcome a challenge or to develop a coping strategy. For instance, if large groups make you uncomfortable, you can either overcome the discomfort or you can try to avoid it and stick to smaller groups of people. I think there's merit to either approach.

7. What can parents, teachers, peers, employers, potential friends/partners and others do to best help such people? What challenges are most difficult and most important?

Like I said in Question #4, I think it's extremely helpful for the people involved in the person's life to be straight-forward with them. No one is going to benefit from the things that are left unsaid because you feel uncomfortable being honest with someone. As for younger children, consistency and repetition with certain skills is crucial. [Emphasis added]

What do you think?


~Zurama~ said...

Just dropping by to wish you a Happy Valentine's Day! ;D

Casdok said...

And also to be straight forward and honset to the parents.
Good interview.