What they taught me: Reflections of a PACTT intern

Jalena Sidler was an Occupational Therapy, Level 2, intern at PACTT during Fall 2015. Here she reflects on her experience:

I left feeling exhausted from observing, and in awe of the people who work here

On my initial thought of PACTT, or more specifically, of working with pre-teens and teens with autism, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Frankly, I felt a bit intimidated! You see, I have only ever been around one person (that I know of) on the spectrum. One cousin who’s only (using “only” loosely) ailment was not being able to hug other people (tactile defense) and who started having seizures at the age of 7. To me and my family, she was the face of autism. Once I found out that I was going to be interning at PACTT I started doing some research. I’ve always known that autism was a spectrum disorder but I didn’t realize that it was based off of severity and support levels. Researching and reading something off of the internet proved futile once it came to actually working with the students here at PACTT. What I learned from the students and staff at PACTT cannot be learned in a book or on the internet.

Day 1 went something like this: arrived to see a bunch of people walking in the neighborhood surrounding the school. Saw some interesting things while said people were walking – some flapping, some crawling, some jumping, etc. I thought “ok, so these are the students.” Next, I go inside and begin meeting everyone and I am assigned to sit with the elementary class to observe. I thought “wow, this is a side of autism I have never seen. These kids need a lot of help. These kids seem pretty severe. They can’t possibly be able to do much without help”. Full disclosure: I was scared! I saw some hitting, kicking, throwing, meltdowns, and tantrums. Why was no one talking? Why was he hitting her? Why is he making that noise? The questions went through my head. Then a student hands me the feelings card that read “How are you feeling?” He stood there waiting so patiently and I answered “excited” because obviously that was the closest to “scared” I can get to without hurting feelings or offending. I left feeling exhausted from observing and in awe of the people who worked here. They endured so much for these kids and truly seemed to care.

Day 1 of week 2 went something like this: arrived to see each individual student participating in their daily morning walk in the community surrounding their school. This community who I learned was very accepting of these teenagers. I see each student as an individual fulfilling their sensory needs after a long bus or car ride to school. I see each staff member fully engaged in the student they are walking with. I see a fully dedicated staff using this time for not only sensory needs, but for safety education, for companionship, for community integration. I was not scared and, in hindsight, embarrassed of myself for even being so during those first couple days of observing. I started to get to know the students and looked forward to cooking class with them. It was a chance to see what they were capable of doing for themselves.

It was a chance to see what [the students] were capable of doing themselves

In 10 short weeks, my views on autism changed dramatically. I watched students who I thought were incapable of doing instrumental daily activities prepare meals with only gestural support. I saw students complete art projects and interact at story time by matching words and THEN finding the same word on their devices. I saw structured tasks be completed in no time. Because of all of the things they can do, I learned to not look at someone and think “wow, this person needs a lot of help. This person seems pretty severe. They can’t possibly be able to do much without help”. I know that as an occupational therapy assistant, I will set limits for many of my future students, clients, or patients and I now understand that I can either set limits that I think they can meet or I can push them past limits that they thought they would never meet. I can take what I have learned from every wonderful person on staff at PACTT and truly dedicate myself to helping that one person be better, hold them to high standards and never think “wow, this person can’t possibly do this.” Out of all the things they can do, the one thing they do best is teach us that you cannot judge a book by its cover. That and patience…….a whole lotta patience.

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