One of the things I’m best at, is teaching. I’m really really good at it. I’ve taught several classes of my own, in addition to being a Teaching Assistant several times as an undergraduate and graduate student. I even have a second job centered around teaching, where I’m constantly held up as an example of one of the best teachers at the place. My boss constantly tells me that I’m one of her best teachers. My clients constantly come to thank me for my wonderful teaching skills. Given all of this evidence, I have to come to the conclusion that I am in fact, a very good teacher. To some people, this particular little fact about me is “proof” that I am not autistic. (Or worse, that because I am autistic, I can’t possibly be a good teacher.) Because in their minds, autism and teaching are such polar opposites that they can’t possibly occur in the same person. But I disagree, wholeheartedly. In fact, I think that my extraordinary teaching skills are a product of being autistic… I’m a good teacher BECAUSE I am autistic, not despite it. But that doesn’t mean it came easy…
In a teacher/student situation, the social roles are pre-set and well-defined. I know the rules, and can follow them. When I lecture, or interact with a group of students, we both have roles to play, and I can play mine very well. I’ve learned. I’ve been teaching others since elementary school, when my teachers decided that to keep me occupied, they would have me teach small groups of my peers sometimes. I taught my stuffed animals, and I taught my younger sister. I knew what was right and proper, and I learned how to problem-solve and reiterate and re-state until the person I was supposed to be teaching had gotten to where we were supposed to be. When the student-teacher roles break down, and I’m no longer in that specific scenario, that is when I struggle. But when there are defined roles, I’m pretty darn good. Plus, it’s often one-way communication about my favorite subjects. Of course that helps considerably… 😉
I spent much of my life constantly observing and learning about human behavior and interactions by route. My giant super-computer of a mind has been slowly taking in and organizing since I was born. Because of this, I can often imagine a number of ways of thinking about something. This means that when a student of mine is having trouble understanding a concept, I can often come up with several different ways to present the material and explain it. My unique way of thinking about and looking at things comes in handy during times like this, because I am able to work with, and help a wide variety of learners.
Concepts and skills didn’t often come easily to me. I’ve had to think and come up with many different work-arounds and attempts to understand the concepts before I finally stumbled upon one that worked for me. I’ve learned to break down skills into their tiniest little parts, then put them back together again. And I’ve built up a library of vocabulary, sayings, and ways of thinking about and conveying the concepts and skills that I teach, that is accessible and able to be shared with my students. For me, I know there isn’t one “right” way of thinking about something, and I accept that. I’ve seen it over and over. You might say I learned by observing bad examples. I learned by watching teachers struggle to explain something to me over and over, never varying their words or descriptions. I learned that it was completely ineffective for me. And with that, I learned that people think differently, and that there are different ways of solving a problem.
This is why I am such a good teacher. Because my brain works differently from most, I am constantly observing, and learning new ways to think about the world. And I am constantly revising my understanding of how things work. I accept and appreciate that people learn differently, and I can break down skills and concepts to their tiniest little steps in order to help people learn effectively. I understand how to switch tactics when someone doesn’t seem to understand. I’ve learned to accept that not everyone thinks like me (in fact, most people don’t!), and that it is not only ok, it is extremely valuable. And I convey to my students that I am willing to take this journey of learning together.
I am a good teacher because I am autistic. Because I have been given the gift of awareness that my brain is different, I have come to understand that everyone’s brain is a little different. Because I struggled to learn so many things, I have developed a deeper understanding of these skills and concepts that I can draw upon to communicate to my students. Because I have learned the role of teacher, I can effectively teach in social situations where I might otherwise be overwhelmed. And because I am so passionate about the things I love, I am able to use the great joy, the unharnessed, stimmy, wonderful joy that I derive from thinking about the things that I love, and transfer some of it to my students, so that they, too, can enjoy learning about what I am teaching.
And this is why I take so much offense when someone says to me “You can’t possibly be autistic, you’re such a good teacher!” Because to them, autism can only hamper such an ability. But it just isn’t true. And in saying something like this, they are dismissing my entire experience in and out of the classroom. They think that because I can teach well, that I must be a great “people person”. That I must have a desire to connect with those around me all of the time. When I have finished teaching a class, I have to go home and sleep. I have to disconnect from people for hours to re-charge. But I love to teach. I love to share my knowledge and joy of learning. I love seeing that spark when someone clicks with a challenging concept, or tries and succeeds at a new skill for the first time.
The assumption that someone cannot be a good teacher if they have a disability is one of the saddest things, because it discounts their personhood, as if having a disability is mutually exclusive from being good at teaching. Fundamentally, teaching is all about connecting with other people and transferring knowledge and understanding. In my case, my disability has allowed me to be very good at this, and I don’t think I’m unique. I just wish that the rest of the world could learn to see me as a whole person, and not judge my strengths and weaknesses based on stereotypes. I’m going to be a professor, and that is one of the reasons I’m so terrified to be “out” about my autism in real life. People are unable to put aside their stereotypes and actually look at a person. If I say I am autistic, the assumption is that I will be a poor teacher. This is wrong on many levels, but it is how the world views us today. I hope that by sharing my experience here, people can come to realize that being autistic doesn’t mean having poor teaching abilities, or having to overcome extreme barriers to be a barely acceptable instructor. I am a great teacher is because I am autistic. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.