My childhood involved times of frustration, disappointment, guilt, and depression. My teachers were often frustrated too—though at the time, none of us knew why. I was not diagnosed with autism until years after I graduated from college.

I went on to earn a graduate degree in special education. What I learned in the classroom—both as a child struggling with autism and as a grad student learning how to intervene on behalf of kids like me—is that special education is not like regular classroom teaching. Therefore, we must not treat it as such.

As a child, I would often fantasize and daydream. Research published by Psychology Today says “daydreaming and pretend play are associated with greater creativity in children. For many kids, fantasies form a basis for social activity with their friends, a way to explore their play, and a vehicle for engaging in creative pursuits like drawing or storytelling.”

However, most students who have autism lack imaginary friends and have fixed interests. Students who are autistic often play alone and do not socialize with other students, which is referred to as solitary play. This contributes to becoming a victim of frequent bullying.

During my childhood, I was often described as being in my own world. I did not meet milestones on time compared to other children. By the time I was in preschool, I was not yet able to speak. Children who have autism typically are not interested in activities their peers enjoy and do not desire to communicate with them. I was directed to the Early Childhood Development Program at the public elementary school I attended. I began receiving speech therapy in preschool. I continued to receive help from a speech therapist until the third grade.

Attending a public elementary school was a difficult experience. Learning was challenging. I was hesitant to participate in the classroom due to the fear of embarrassment. I had difficulty with listening, understanding the teacher’s expectations, following classroom directions, and requesting help when I did not understand a classroom lesson or assignment. At the end of the third grade, my parents decided to enroll me in a private school.

For me, private school was a more pleasant and rewarding experience. The size of the classroom was smaller and had eight to 10 students. This made it easier for me to listen, understand the teacher and participate in the classroom. I received individualized help from teachers. They provided students with strategies to remember information that was taught in the classroom. Educators helped students develop beneficial study strategies to comprehend information they read.

Likewise, the students helped me feel comfortable in the classroom. They encouraged me to learn. I communicated with my classmates frequently and developed rapport with them. I attended private school from grades 3-7. The preparatory middle school I attended focused on Latin, Greek mythology, and Shakespeare.

The transition to a public middle school in the eighth grade was tough. I was not familiar with the school. It was difficult for me to adjust to the classroom. Some students made learning difficult as they continuously interrupted teachers from teaching. This contributed to teachers’ stress and frustration with providing instruction. As a result, teachers became demanding. Students were reluctant to ask for help when they did not understand a classroom lesson or assignment.

In 1999, I attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. The college students were more respectful and tolerant than my classmates in high school. The size of the university was small. During undergraduate school, I participated in study abroad programs in Spain and Mexico. I even completed an internship at Walt Disney World. I attended the university from 1999 to 2004. In 2004, I received an undergraduate degree in Public Relations and Advertising.

In 2013—finally—I was diagnosed with autism. The diagnosis helped me to understand the challenges and difficulties I experienced in school. Those challenges continue today; I have social anxiety and I easily become frustrated, stressed, depressed, and anxious. Research provided in Medical News Today reports “autistic people have higher rates of comorbidity such as anxiety and depression, than those in the general population.”

In 2018, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of North Texas. I took classes in special education to gain an awareness of the difficulties and challenges students with disabilities encounter in school on a regular basis. During the summer of 2019, I received a master’s degree in Special Education with a concentration in Autism Intervention.

These classes showed me that special education is different. Texas can and should improve how it approaches special-needs kids and their educations. 

As The Atlantic reports, teachers often do not have the time or energy to ensure that all students benefit from the education that is offered to them. Upon graduating from college, novice educators can lack the training that is required to teach students with disabilities in the general education classroom. Special education courses are not a core requirement in most education programs offered at universities and colleges.

Special education teachers, on the other hand, are assigned additional responsibilities besides teaching and managing the classroom. This often results in educators becoming frustrated, stressed, and overwhelmed. This eventually results in teacher burnout. They are often asked to monitor students during lunch, recess and at the end of the school day. They are responsible for consultations with parents, school diagnosticians, school counselors, and principals. They also develop individual reports and plans for each special education student. Their plates are quite full.

A disadvantage of special education is a failure to focus on teaching content areas. Instead, life skills are the primary focus. This failure can leave some special education students without the necessary skills to enter the workforce.

Special education also feels like something of an afterthought; special education teachers often feel they’re not compensated for their extra time and duties; special education students can feel that their achievements are not recognized like the football team’s victories or the FFA’s livestock successes.

Students in special education may believe they do not have the potential and the ability to learn. This causes them to fall behind in school and leave them at-risk of not graduating from high school. They are not able to catch up to students who move ahead to the next grade.

Parents also face challenges. Some might question why their child is placed in the special education classroom in the first place. They may have higher expectations of their child than the teacher. Parents may believe the teacher is not effective with instructing their child. They may believe their child deserves to receive a better education than what is currently provided in the classroom. But do they have the power to change this?

After high school, young people with disabilities such as autism are only able to find work in low paying part-time jobs. They have difficulty with maintaining those jobs due to the inability to follow through with their commitments. Often, they do not understand an employer’s expectations, and they have trouble with completing work in a timely manner.

What must change?

Teachers need to have high expectations for students’ accomplishments in the special education classroom. There is always room for improvement, no matter a student’s intelligence and academic standing. Every student should be recognized by his or her teacher and an emphasis must be placed on helping them identify and recognize their gifts, strengths, and talents.

Opportunities must be provided to students where they can take the lead in the classroom and work together with others. When a student does not consider himself intelligent, he loses interest in learning. A student must not assume he is misunderstood or not appreciated. If he is hesitant to communicate with his teacher and other students, he becomes distant and withdrawn.

Students themselves have a duty to recognize and understand the importance of receiving an education.

I was fortunate; I have parents who helped me—and my teachers—to understand these things.

The state of Texas has a constitutional duty to provide  a publicly available educational system. That includes special education students—even if they do not learn in the way that other kids learn.