Different but the same

Happy children in a multi ethnic elementary classroom.

Working with kids, a newcomer to Canada finds joy and meaning

Working as an EPA (Educational Program Assistant) has revealed to me a new world where youngsters work to cope with the demands society makes.
Take for instance, T.J. (Name changed.) He is 17 years old and doing Grade 1 math. He concentrates on his work for 20 minutes at the most, and then he has to go for a walk around the hallway to relax or switch to another activity like the word search or cycling around the hallway. He is struggling to live up to the demands we make on him and ends up doing many of the things he doesn’t want to during his long days at school.
Most of the children I work with have autism. One recent report says that one in every 66 Canadian children is diagnosed with autism. Initially working with these children challenged me. I wanted to learn how to work with them effectively and positively, so I’ve been reading all the reputable information I can find on the subject.
Currently I’m working as a substitute EPA. This means I check the website and accept an assignment for the day which takes me to a different school every day. In the morning, when I walk into the school, I never know what to expect. Will today’s child be quiet and cooperative or aggressive and overactive? The supervisor of the Learning Centre is always helpful and I get a case study with the child’s file. Studying this helps me prepare for the day.
Empathy and careful communication are my priorities. I try to understand what my students are thinking and feeling, and respond accordingly. Most of the times this works. I’m allowed to explore their private world with them. I even get a smile or a gentle hug when I say goodbye in the evening. But sometimes, it doesn’t work because they are so engrossed in their private world that they shut out the outside world.
Handling a violent student is another matter altogether. These young people sometimes scream and call names, spit, scratch, or bite. The supervisor’s forewarning helps the EPA prepare. I find a soft, gentle approach frequently helps them settle back into their normal routines.
According to another report, in Canada 3.7% of children aged 5 to 15 have physical and mental impairments, and learning disabilities. More boys are affected by severe disabilities than girls.
The common learning disabilities include problems in areas like speaking, reasoning, listening, reading, writing, and math. Often these children are intelligent but cannot keep up with the other children because their minds work differently. An EPA with a deeper understanding of the disability can help them overcome the problems slowly and steadily, with patience and perseverance.
Sometimes I think about how unfair it is that these children face more difficult paths. Who is to blame? Is God, or however you describe the creator, responsible for this? Or, as many would say, is it a quirk of nature? And to what purpose?
Then again, are these children really unhappy? The “neurodiversity” view argues that what some see as disability is actually the result of normal variations of the human genome. Many kids like the ones I work with are perfectly content as they are. Others are aware that they are different, and wonder why.
Recent research shows that children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder often exhibit extraordinary characteristics such as approaching situations differently, acquiring computer skills faster than others, and being endowed with musical abilities and skills in art and design. After receiving clear and precise instructions, they perform, in their special field, better than others provided they are allowed to work in a quiet environment and with a minimum of interference.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to autism, and therefore some parents do not want others to know that their child is autistic. This could lead to problems for the autistic child as well as others and may create situations where the autistic child is bullied for not behaving as they are expected to.
E. J. Plows, a U. K. based author, says in her book, Autistic blessing and Bipolar me, “It is my understanding that when you receive an autism diagnosis for your child, you have to accept it. If you don’t, you are only condemning yourself and your child to a life of frustrating misery.” She advises parents to work with it, not against it.
All of us are, to a great extent, differently abled because we are born to different parents and are raised differently. So let us accept the diversity in people’s abilities and respect their ways.
As for me, despite all challenges, I am happy with my work, helping children in whatever way possible to make their life a bit easier. I believe that all children deserve all our help, love, and understanding. And I am grateful for the opportunity to work with them and to get to know them.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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