ALL CHILDREN ARE SPECIAL. STOP LABELING THEM LIKE CANNED GOODS.
As a special education teacher at Annandale High School, Annandale, Virginia, I taught several self-contained, history classes. At the beginning of the new school year, I was ill- prepared for the very special student named Catherine Elliott, listed on my third period attendance sheet.
That first day, when I called the roll, there were the usual responses of “here”, “yah”, “okay”, and suddenly--- when I called-out the classic, traditional name--Catherine---I heard a firm, authoritative reply: “Just as I expected, you have it wrong, it’s not Catherine, its Cat, C-A-T". From that day forward, I knew Cat was never to be called Catherine. I also knew that third period- every day- I should expect the unexpected.
Later, I examined Cat’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to understand her background and identify her specific disability. I read that, at the age of three years, Cat was diagnosed as a child with autism and mild retardation. She had two older brothers, one with an emotional disability (ED) and the other with a learning disability (LD). Cat’s mother (Beth) had been married four times and, at our first meeting, Beth announced she had recently divorced husband #4 and was now living with her new boyfriend. Elaborating in greater detail than was necessary, Beth declared that her current boyfriend would probably be husband #5.
Although Beth seemed charming, was stylishly attractive, and held an administrative position at a well-known DC university, she didn’t “dance around” her daughter’s issues. Beth made it abundantly clear she expected Cat to outgrow her Autism. She also believed that, as a parent, she devoted more-than- enough time with Cat and expected Cat’s teachers to do the same.
Cat excelled in her studies and carefully followed the class rules. She also monitored other students to make certain they followed the class rules too. Without fail, if Cat saw someone breaking a rule, she not only announced it to the entire class, she named the offender. Naturally, this tattle-tale style didn’t endear Cat to her classmates but, following the rules was more important to Cat than winning a popularity contest.
After noting that several students in the class had obvious disabilities, I introduced a social skills lesson on “being different”. The video accompanying the lesson discussed unusual behaviors-- including Autism Spectrum and Tourette’s syndrome. Following the video, I encouraged the class to discuss family members, friends, neighbors….anyone who appeared "different".
The class enjoyed sharing everyone they knew who was "different". Cat got everyone's attention when she talked about her older brother who spent years in a juvenile detention center.Many of the students seemed impressed when Cat discussed the reasons her brother was placed in the detention center In fact, Cat gained some serious admirers once she announced that her brother was a registered sex offender. One student asked for her autograph, believing Cat’s brother might someday be famous.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the classroom accepted Cat. But, shortly after the “being different” lesson, Cat played a more- prominent role with the other students. Cat had definitely found a way to “fit in”. As a special education student, Cat had managed to clear "the special education hurdle" and was now considered "regular" rather than "different".
Every May, just before Annandale’s school year ended, the students presented a talent show. One week before the Big Show, Cat announced she was performing in the talent show and invited everyone to come hear her sing. I knew Cat was counting on me to be in the audience and I wouldn’t have missed it for-the-world.
Looking back, it’s surprising how much I under-estimated Cat’s talent. Sure, I knew Cat loved The Beatles and had a large collection of Beatle T- Shirts. I also knew Cat was driven to succeed and had an amazingly-strong determination. But no one, including me, had any idea Cat could “sell a song” like a professional.
When Cat Elliot, special education student, wearing one of her many Beatles' T-Shirts, finished performing her fabulous rendition of John Lennon’s IMAGINE... The audience--- consisting of students, teachers, parents, and guests---all jumped out of their seats to applaud Cat with overwhelming approval…. and their applause lasted for almost four minutes. Cat behaved like a seasoned entertainer as she bowed, blew kisses, smiled, waved…..left the stage…. then returned for more encores….until finally, the houselights came on and the curtain dropped.
Cat Elliot never outgrew Autism but she learned how-to gain respect, attract an audience, inspire applause... and establish a presence beyond the label-Autistic. Just--- Imagine.