Ashley Dreiss is an educator who works with children on the Autism spectrum and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology Research Methods at Fordham University. We met up with her in the East Village, Manhattan, to talk about what she does, why she does it, and why compassion and patience are so important when interacting with children with Autism.
What do you do and where do you work?
I work at a K-8 school for kids on the Autism spectrum as an assistant teacher; it’s called Learning Spring school.
Why were you drawn to working with children in the first place, and why specifically to children with Autism?
I’ve always had a passion for kids. Since I was little I’ve found children adorable and I think that they’re much nicer than adults, (sometimes), and personally I’ve been interested in Autism since my younger cousin was diagnosed in 2004, so there’s a family connection as to why I’m interested. But then also, while I was at NYU doing my undergrad, I decided to take a course on it. so my minor, which was Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies, offered an advanced seminar on Autism spectrum disorders, where, basically, we got to go into a school once a week and volunteer; which is how I found Learning Spring in the first place.
So during my junior year of college, I took this course where I was learning about Autism and the neuroscience behind it, and I was able to go into Learning Spring and volunteer in the classroom for an hour each week and see the children firsthand. Once I graduated, I applied for a full-time assistant teacher position and I got it.
What has been the biggest challenge that you faced on a personal level with this job?
That’s a tough one. Probably taking things to heart too much. I feel like everyone at my school is there because they love children, they get very involved in the kid’s lives and by that i mean, familywise, you really want to help the whole child, not just the child at school, and sometimes I feel like maybe you can get too intertwined into wanting to help the child. You want to give them all good days, but sometimes they’re gonna have bad days and you can’t really take it personally if they do have bad days.
What obstacles did you have to overcome that you weren’t initially prepared for?
Probably, for me, I thought that being in grad school full-time and working full-time would be much easier; I thought that I could do my schoolwork at home, and that I wouldn’t have to think about work outside of work, but I’m just not that type of person. I do a lot of outside research for my kids, like I’ll talk to professionals that I know from my academic career, and try to find information that can help my students. Whether i’m creating behavioral plans or just seeking advice on how to help children on the spectrum better, I often do that on my own time. So obviously, my time-management skills have been put to the test this year, but I can say that I feel much more comfortable entering my second year of my program and work having already done it successfully last year.
What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had?
I mean the kids, obviously. They’re lovely individuals and even when they’re having a bad day, at the end of the day I know that they truly trust me and that we have a bond that is really special. I’m really thankful and grateful that they trust in me to be there for them throughout the day, and at work we can kind of be their school family so they feel comfortable when their parents aren’t there. They have another team of support and they know that everyone in the school is looking out for their best interest.
Was there any specific moment where you felt like you learned a lot about the job?
I don’t think there’s any particular moments, it’s probably a small build-up of moments, where I’ve had either certain breakthroughs with some kids, or just certain breakthroughs with how I was handling situations myself. All of these moments while working with this population of children has given me a better insight into what I would like to do with my future, which is to become a child psychologist.
Do you remember specifically one example of one of those breakthroughs you were talking about?
Yeah. So, a lot of the children, just because they have Autism, that doesn’t mean that’s the only disorder they have. I mean, kids are kids, in any typical sense of the way, and kids have anxiety, kids have OCD, kids have all of these other comorbid disorders that can happen to typical kids as well as to kids on the Autism spectrum, like they’re not immune to having other things. In particular children with anxiety is something I’m really interested in, and I think being able to help certain students in my class who suffer from anxiety was the largest learning moment for me.
I’ve worked with typical kids with anxiety before, and a lot of the methods that I thought I could use, that I knew, and that I had in my personal “toolbox”, you could say, I couldn’t really use with children on the spectrum. Because many children on the spectrum don’t think anxious thoughts the same way that a typical child thinks anxious thoughts. A lot of anxiety is thought-based, and it can often be hard to verbally communicate with a child who might not have the same verbal comprehension level that a typical child might, and be able to help them. So I feel like I’ve had to adapt my own skillset and know that, in the future, I would like to help children who are on the Autism spectrum with anxiety. Because I don’t think that they can be treated the same way that a typical child with anxiety can be treated and I don’t necessarily know if there are therapies out there right now that are geared towards helping them.
That’s really interesting; it actually never occurred to me that they might have multiple things going on. They might be depressed or something, as well as being autistic.
Exactly. I think a lot of people when they think about a child on the spectrum, they can only see their Autism. And while, yeah, obviously their Autism diagnosis is important, these kids are also completely susceptible to having other mental health disorders and it’s important that that can’t be forgotten and needs attention too.
How has your perception of children with Autism changed since you started working at Learning Spring?
I think it’s definitely developed, because all the experience I had prior to learning spring in terms of children with Autism was with my cousin in particular, and there’s this huge quote among the Autism community where it’s like, “once you’ve met one child with Autism, you’ve met one child with Autism.” And that’s so true. I could not name two children at my school that are exactly the same in the way that they present with their Autism. Sure, some kids might have speech delays, or some kids might have less verbal comprehension than others, and those things can be pretty common learning patterns among individuals on the spectrum, but all of them are so different. They all have their own personalities; there’s not one type of Autism, it really is a spectrum. And I think that becomes so much more evident, seeing 108 kids every day presenting with their own set of characteristics.
What do you think people with limited exposure to autistic children should know about them and how to interact with them?
That’s actually a really good question. I always think about my kids when we go on field trips, or if we are out in the community. I mean, we teach them social skills, but it’s one thing to teach a child social skills and another thing to have them actually use them in society. And sometimes my students will have great days on field trips and sometimes they won’t. It’s one of the most heartwarming things when people are sympathetic and empathetic to a child’s struggle, like they can clearly see that the child is having a hard time and they’re patient, and even if they don’t personally know what to do, they know that the people that are with that child are capable of helping them. But I find it so unimaginable that people can just be so rude to a child.
Like it’s not always physically clear that a child has Autism cause there’s not exactly physical markers as with other developmental disorders. But a child with Autism you don’t necessarily see any physical signs to indicate that they are on the spectrum, so I think a lot of the time adults and maybe even children might be like ‘oh, that kid’s a little off, or he’s a little weird, or there’s something going on with him,’ and it’s offensive because I think they don’t give them the chance to show that they are just an individual who maybe learns a different way, or speaks a different way, or thinks about things a different way. But it doesn’t make them any less than they are, any less than a typical child. I find it frustrating when people aren’t willing to be patient.
Being patient is the best thing that a person who doesn’t understand Autism can be. Because I think that so-called experts on Autism still don’t know everything about Autism; it’s such a newly researched topic that there are still so many unanswered questions. So it’s not really expected that a random person on the street would understand Autism and all that comes with it, but you don’t really have to understand it fully to be a kind, patient person. You should just be a kind, patient person, always.
Anything else to add?
Just to really portray the fact that learning spring is an amazing community that has been created. There are 108 children on the Autism spectrum in the school, and I couldn’t imagine where these kids would be if they didn’t have this outlet and the support of the school behind them. It’s an amazing place to work and I honestly wouldn’t want to spend 40 hours a week anywhere else.
For more information about Learning Spring School, visit www.learningspring.org