Unlike most schools in Singapore, two teaching staff at St. Andrew’s Autism School would lead a small class size of six students. For about four and a half hours daily, during school terms, our teachers deliver the customised curriculum, helping our students develop functional, independent and daily living skills, nurturing each one holistically as our students focus on learning and growing.
Listening to Discover —The Humanity of Autism
“Hi! Teacher Kerrilyn!” came the greeting from a young voice. She looked up and saw that spontaneous greeting and initiation of conversation had been from her ex-student. “It was random,” Kerrilyn recalled and chuckled. That said, this simple gesture from a student whom she has once taught and knew to be more withdrawn was a pleasant out-of-the-blue event that made her day.
As an SAAS teacher, Kerrilyn is student-and family-centred. She is committed to working with every student, regardless of profiles and levels of support, persevering in the face of challenges and does not give up easily.
Displaying extraordinary care and respect for our students and their families, Kerrilyn often goes out of her way to maintain close contact with parents and caregivers, building rapport and sharing the highlights of their child’s day. “I don’t think I’m a patient person. It is working with students on the autism spectrum that have taught me to be patient. There is a lot in life to learn from them,” she quipped.
To Kerrilyn, there is a lot of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding autism. She passionately shared her conviction of the innocence and straight-forwardness she perceives of her students on the autism spectrum, qualities that have endeared her to them even on challenging days and continue to inspire her in her work with young learners with special needs. Even now, more than six years on in the field, Kerrilyn continues to advocate the importance of adopting a listening posture as key to connecting with autistic persons.
“Persons on the autism spectrum communicate differently. It is a discovery process for me to find ways to relate with them and connect. As I discover more of each of my students, I also discover and learn more about myself and how I can be a better person,” she said, pondering on her teaching journey thus far.
Certainly, as a teacher of students with special needs, it is no walk in the park. However, there are also many sweet moments of expressed affection, such as when her students “pats pats” her or initiates to look into her eyes that would easily over-ride particularly tough days when meltdowns are unexplained and when attempts at emotional regulation fail. On those days, Kerrilyn tends to focus on everyone’s vulnerability, not just the child’s but also those of families and friends (classmates).
“Understanding needs rapport, especially when a large population of our students are non-verbal communicators. We need to seek to understand the child, and what he/she is trying to communicate. Focus on the humanity of autism,” she elaborated in her sharing.
Kerrilyn gives it her all in lesson preparation, caring for the children, parent and caregiver engagement and planning for projects, often working beyond official hours.
One step, two. Wait, a few more steps than the usual, confidently and independently. Yen Ling, one of our teacher aide at St. Andrew’s Autism School (SAAS) recounted an experience that was more than just encouraging to her personally. It encapsulates the joy and sense of purpose she has for her work in support and care for children on the autism spectrum.
The experience speaks of a 17-year-old autistic student’s progress with growing independence and overcoming of anxiety. It started with five minutes of walking without support, one day. Each day, the student would walk independently to the classroom from the drop-off point for longer periods of time. This surprise progress took almost three years. Without an awareness of or close interactions with autistic persons on the more moderate to severe end of the spectrum, others may deem this progress to be a cause for concern. Yen Ling, however, sees such gentle growth and development are the inch-stones are heartening, which she promptly shares with families of her students.
“With the work that I do, every day is different. Every day is a discovery process. Even during lessons, we can discover about the child, his/her strengths and areas of interest. It can be very small things, like arts and crafts and skills that they child can do and enjoy,” She explained.
Yen Ling thinks that it is very important to build trust with families of our students. She added, “When I see their (students’) joy, it warms and touches the heart. Parents at home can be very busy and bogged down by the routines and demands of life. That’s why it’s a good thing to share with parents so that they can share the joy.”
Yen Ling’s sheer dedication to always giving her best to her students and their families is widely recognised by her colleagues and key personnel. She relentlessly explores ways to best support her students, often sacrificing personal time and convenience.
“When I first took this job, it was so much tougher than what I had expected. I was working with classes with students with higher support needs, especially during the first two years and I was so new to my role as Teacher Aide,” Yen Ling shared. No two meltdowns are the same. While one strategy would work on most days, there are days when it would not. So on any given day, it can be quite difficult to anticipate how each day would pan out, with some days being more challenging than others. When the going gets tough, what really gets Yen Ling down more is the powerlessness she feels. She reflected, “It’s not the defeat that I felt, but the helplessness that I could not have helped the child more.” On more challenging days, Yen Ling feels that “encouragement through colleagues and spiritual support helps her through it. It’s never about one person, but a team — teamwork.”