By Christopher Smith
Teacher Jessica Patterson says when most students begin her autism resource class at North Whitfield Middle School they arrive “broken and crushed” from bullying in the Whitfield County Schools system.
“The autism resource class ... focuses on students with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism,” she said. “They’re obvious targets for bullying because people don’t understand why kids with these conditions do what they do (poor social skills, poor communication skills). It has happened a lot in our schools. The students bring a lot of horror stories of being picked on or harassed ... in bathrooms or playgrounds. And they wouldn’t tell anyone because they tend to be loners anyways.”
That’s why Patterson, a 2009 system teacher of the year, has made it her mission to raise awareness about autism to “cut down on bullying.” That’s also why her class was busy painting “heart puzzles” Friday afternoon that will be displayed throughout county schools.
Heidi Ingle of the HeartWorks paint shop in Dalton taught the class.
“The puzzle is the symbol of autism (because of the scientific mysteries in understanding the disorder),” Patterson said. “So we’re painting heart puzzles. We bring the students all in this room and they learn about Asperger and autism and from that they become advocates for themselves — so they can understand themselves and help other people understand them, too.”
Victoria Corn said being in the class has given her confidence.
“It made me realize what is different about me,” she said. “Different in a good way.”
Patterson said Victoria was very shy and didn’t easily fit in with other students before coming to the class. That’s something Patterson could relate to.
“I hated school,” she said. “I always thought — even as a kid — that I could run school better than it’s run. So I always related to kids with behavior issues more than your typical A-plus kids. About eight years ago, I came to North Whitfield and started working with a kid named Ethan (who was diagnosed with autism) ... I just had this connection with him ... I think that initial relationship gave me the strength and the fire to build this program. It just grew from there and I began to build up my confidence that I could do this — I could teach them.”
Patterson said teaching the kids is a team effort with Krisie Howard, a paraprofessional who has been in the class for six years.
“We and the kids are a family,” Howard said. “ Whether we fail or succeed — we do it together. I know the students feel like that — you know — whatever we try to teach them we’re doing it together.”
That’s the key to breaking through communication barriers associated with Asperger and autism, Patterson added.
“The cool thing about this program is they realize, ‘Hey, there’s someone like me,’” she said. “So they’re really a tight group of kids because they have similar characteristics ... I’ve come to kind of see Asperger or autism as a gift now because the kids have this cool insight to see things and focus on things that most other people are distracted by.
“They’re super creative; super intelligent. Typically, people try to do all kinds of different things at the same time and these kids just focus on one thing and make discoveries and patterns most of us miss. The way they think mathematically is just amazing. Once you get past (stigmas), they’re truly wonderful kids. When they get in a crew like this they build each other up ... it’s amazing to see.”