As an undergraduate student, I was majoring in Physical Therapy. I had chosen to pursue a career in Physical Therapy in high school, and had never really questioned the decision. During my senior year, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a BOCES in Ithaca, New York. I was focusing on pediatrics, and felt this would be good practice. I had no idea it would be a life altering experience.
I was placed in a classroom of children with severe and multiple disabilities ranging from autism to cystic fibrosis. Many of the students were unable to speak or walk. This was a very different type of environment for me. However, I began to look forward to the afternoons I would spend in the BOCES classroom between my own classes at Ithaca College. The classroom teacher involved his students in activities I never would have thought possible. The class went bowling, took part in scavenger hunts, cooked meals, and danced at school concerts. The time I was spending with the students was opening my eyes to the endless ways in which children who had seemed unable to do many of the things I took for granted, could take part in the community and enjoy the same activities I enjoyed.
While all of my experiences in that classroom touched me, there was one day and one child who changed the path of my life forever. That afternoon, Jay, a child with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair and had no verbal language, needed help getting his coat on to go home. As I leaned over his wheelchair and buttoned up his winter coat, one of my curls plopped forward in front of Jay’s face. I felt a little tug on my hair and looked up to see Jay bouncing the curl, laughing, and staring right into my eyes. His green eyes were sparkling. I rubbed his hair and joked around with him while he laughed and continued to gaze at me. At that moment, something changed inside of me. This child was making an effort to communicate and interact with me. That is when I realized the difference I was making in the lives of those children. I wanted to continue to make that difference.
A few months later, I decided not to continue in the field of Physical Therapy. The next fall I began working towards a Master’s degree in Special Education. Today I am teaching children with Autism and experiencing moments such as that each day. Every time one of my students makes a connection with me, comes over to give me a hug, jokes around with me, masters a skill, makes progress in his behavior, or just smiles at me, I know that I made the right decision. I have never once regretted volunteering at BOCES or changing the direction of my professional life.
I will always remember Jay. I am thankful that he came into my life at that time and was able to have such an impact on me and the lives of all of the children I will touch throughout my teaching career.
* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism experience.