1993 / 2月
edited by Chang Chung-fang /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Christopher Hughes
I graduated as a teacher from the department of special education and have been working as a special education teacher for eight years now. For various reasons, such as the work being too arduous or the lack of feelings of achievement and special attention, my fellow students and colleagues gradually drifted away from special education to go and work with normal classes.
I do not have any superior strength or intelligence, but just attach a lot of importance to my work. It allows me to study, grow, get a sense of achievement and have a clear insight into life.
A graduate in teaching, when I entered the experimental primary school attached to my college, it had just started up a special education class. This being my subject, I was naturally bursting with enthusiasm to get involved.
I came into contact with children who had all kinds of mental disabilities. Those with Down's syndrome were the most warm, gentle and willing to let me into their hearts. The pupils who required most effort, were the hardest to teach and most easily gave people a feeling of having been defeated, were the autistic children.
Right from the start the school put the easily disturbed autistic children into an "emotionally disabled class" so as to facilitate teaching and control. This class was also widely admitted to be a "terror" class, the most rowdy and troublesome of all the special classes. I took it from the fourth grade up to graduation, spending three whole years with its pupils.
There were five children with five very different personalities; they had their strong points and their weak ones, being both motivated and destructive. After a period of observation and contact, I gradually learnt some methods for getting along with them. For example, when the children were emotionally disturbed I would never reprimand them but would warmly coax them and gradually soothe their emotions. If a child ran amok, it was futile to give chase; the more you went in pursuit, the more the child would run. If, instead, you waited until the child stopped, then went over to get him, he would come back without any trouble.
I heard Doctor Cheng Hsin-hsiung say that, due to a blockage in the coordinative functions of the brain, autistic children have no way to link their vision, hearing, touch and muscular movements with frontal lobe sensations. There was one kind of "sensation coordination class" which used exercise equipment, such as skateboards, to provide sensual stimulation and facilitate coordination in autistic children. This was also of great help in stabilizing their emotions, which I made the most important objective of my teaching, often discussing the results with Doctor Cheng. Slowly the abnormal movements of the children decreased and their emotions became much more stable than they had been before the therapy, which made me very excited.
The biggest difference between autistic children and other mentally disabled children is that the latter can retain things better as they study them, while the ability of the former is less consistent; today they will study something but there is no guarantee that they will be able to carry it out later on. A change in the weather or in living environment can destabilize their emotions and necessitate going back to the beginning all over again. Former achievements might be wiped out without a trace.
Before the pupils graduated there was an obvious backsliding in the emotionally disabled class. The emotional changes in the adolescent children were also more stormy. They would often cry out sharply and even tear their clothes.
I remember once there was heavy rain and thunder and some of the children began to wail and others got uneasy. A pupil who had once been punished by his father for breaking a glass tumbler just kept on repeating "do not break glass tumblers" over and over, then picked up a tumbler and smashed it outside the door.
It was very hard to cultivate good behavior and all too easy for disturbed emotions to spread. The children in the emotionally disabled class did not have the variety of stimuli that other children have and they would very rarely do things together. Not only would the things they were taught be only half done, but there also appeared the phenomenon of regression.
Because the experiences of this class were not very successful, the school decided to change its style of integration. Last year we started to hold classes mixing autistic with other types of mentally disabled children and stopped the classes that kept them isolated. Although this method is only in its second year, there has already been an obvious improvement in the way the pupils work together.
As well as educating the children, teachers of the mentally handicapped classes also have to help their families. Because the children need educating, the parents are in extra need of guidance.
Some parents are very pessimistic and feel that their children have no hope. I use a report book so that when parents' send in their children every day I can tell them what their child has done and how much progress they have made.
Once there was a couple who quarreled a lot because the mother could not accept that their child was not perfect. The husband was torn between "wanting his wife or wanting his child." I used the opportunity of a parents' meeting to allow the mother to have a chat with some of the other parents. They cried and let off steam together, and I found my own private opportunities to have meetings and talk with her. This mother gradually came out from the shadows and accepted her child. When her child graduated, she even wrote a card to thank me, which moved me a lot.
Many mothers and grandmothers bring their children to lessons and then stay on in the school, helping me to clean the classrooms, sweep up and arrange the desks. These women also help out by taking care of the children during the extra activities classes and sensation coordination training. Such enthusiasm and gratitude is rarely seen in parents of pupils in the ordinary classes.
There is feedback from the parents and rewards from the school--they chose me as "outstanding teacher" for 1987 and 1988. Last year I was made "education lover" by Taipei City's Department of Education, and this April I was lucky enough to take part in a special observation trip to America for outstanding teachers in special education. These encouragements have enabled me to overcome any setbacks with ease.
Last year I took on a new first-year class. None of the ground rules had been established, so this entailed the highest degree of responsibility and the greatest fatigue.
The new class had a girl pupil with multiple disabilities, a mentally disabled boy and three autistic boys. Two of the autistic boys, named Cheng-cheng and Wei-wei, had comparatively high mental and behavioral abilities.
Wei-wei had grown to be a bright and lovable child. With no father and a mother who had gone elsewhere to find work, he had been brought up by his grandmother. I remember that the first day he came to the class his grandmother told me, "This child is mute, he cannot speak!" I found out, however, that he could actually make sounds; it was just that he had not had enough cultural stimulation. So I said to his grandmother, "We will think of a way to get him to talk!"
When the class first began the children would not sit still for a minute. They ran about in class and Cheng-cheng would keep on repeating to himself that he wanted to go home and listen to tapes or play a tape of the song they had learned on a previous day; Wei-wei was fascinated by the tape player and cassette and would not stop crying that he wanted to play with them. He was soon oblivious of my presence.
Now the children have gone up to the second grade and can recognize Chinese characters, write and count to one hundred and do simple arithmetic. What is even more important is that they sit peacefully in class. Wei-wei, from not speaking a word, can hold simple conversations; although his intonation is not very robust, he has already greatly surprised his grandmother. Cheng-cheng can copy Chinese characters clearly and correctly and his speech is very pleasant to the ear.
Some people say that autistic children do not understand how to communicate with people and cannot express their feelings. But I enjoy the sincerity of these children; they cannot deceive you. Perhaps they do not understand how to smooth talk their teacher, but there are often times when they give a sincere show of their emotions.
Once I took maternity leave and Wei-wei did not see me for some time. Every day he would cry out my name over and over again. Although he could not completely express himself, his grand mother knew that he was missing me and brought him over to visit, which was very moving.
The boy's grandmother told me that once, when they were going to school, Wei-wei caught sight of his mother, who had just returned home after having not been seen for a long time. He just smiled, but did not open his mouth to say "Mom." As soon as Wei-wei came home after school, he ran into the room and searched everywhere. His grand-mother knew he was looking for his mother and said to him, "Mom has gone back to work!" As soon as Wei-wei heard this, he burst into tears.
I have been a special teacher for eight years--from a situation where the pupils of the ordinary classes would call those in the special classes "crazy" and run to the door of the classroom to take a look, or shun them, to today; although there is still little contact with the other pupils, at least they no longer avoid or make jokes about the disabled. It seems that the school's special education has already got some foundation.
Speaking for myself, the challenge of work and the process of learning, the purity of the children and the hardship of the families, have all given me a completely different idea of life from the one I held previously.
Friends I have not seen for a long time are all surprised at how much I have changed. In the past I was introverted and taciturn, melancholically seeking for perfection. Today my personality has changed dramatically: I am confident and outspoken, open-minded and have a bigger heart with which to try to embrace the less than perfect people and things of this world.
Huang Mei-fen often uses circumstances closely related to real life when designing her teaching, so as to give students a better chance of integrating into society.
Wei-wei's grandmother thought he could not speak, but these days he can call the honors after class.