Teacher of autistic kids treasures small successes

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2013 - 4:43 PM

In our continuing series about everyday people mastering their craft, a special education teacher prepares kids to cope with a mystifying world.

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Heather Cronin Ott worked with Jacob, a student in the Communication and Interactional Disorders program at Otter Lake Elementary School.

Photo: Tom Wallace • twallace@startribune.com ,

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 Heather Cronin Ott sits on the gym floor, hands locked with the fourth-grade boy’s as she helps him learn sit-ups. You can’t spot the bruises, scratches and bite marks that line her arms.

“It’s an occupational hazard,” said Cronin Ott, 42. She works with autistic children and helps provide learning tools for other teachers in a specialized, 26-student program for children in grades K-5 who have difficulty fitting into traditional school programs.

“These are great kids — a whole range of personalities, learning abilities, physical issues,” she said. “But sometimes, the only way they know to communicate — to say, I’m scared or I hurt or leave me alone — is to hit, bite, spit or yell.”

Learning new ways to communicate is the primary reason they attend the Communication and Interactional Disorders Program, housed in a wing of Otter Lake Elementary School in White Bear Lake. It is a service of Special School District 916, which serves 10 northeastern Twin Cities suburban districts. She learned American Sign Language to better communicate with some children whose disability makes speaking difficult.

Cronin Ott’s class is called gym, but a lot more goes on here than mere physical exercise during her daily half-hour sessions in each of the school’s six-student classes, where children are grouped more by ability than age.

“This is why I’m so drawn to these kids,” she said. “I can really make a difference in a child’s life. Working with parents, other teachers and other specialists, I can help a child begin to make sense of the world, to achieve some success, to feel good.”

In her class, they learn to actually hear instructions so they can be followed, to adjust energy from an exhilarating run to the stillness of yoga, to describe what they’re feeling and ask for what they need.

“It’s so easy to stereotype kids with autism or other learning disabilities, try to fit them into the same box,” said Cronin Ott, who was drawn to special education after working at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities.

“But each one is an individual, growing and changing and learning new stuff every day, just like any other kid. Or maybe more than most kids,” she said, “because they learn academic lessons, but also how to cope with a mystifying world, one that sometimes just doesn’t make sense to them.”

Cronin Ott didn’t plan to become a teacher.

“Not by a long shot,” she said. “I dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison because I just wasn’t serious. I went to Alaska and worked in a restaurant for a while, then came to Minnesota, got married and started working at a group home. I became an aide for a 6-year-old girl with autism and was really drawn to working with kids. I started at the U of M, and this time I worked hard. I got my bachelor’s and master’s.”

What does it take to be an excellent teacher of kids with autism? “Patience, patience, patience. That and learning that you have to work as a team with parents and other professionals. The kids will tell you what they need, but sometimes not in words. You have to be tuned in all the time, in communication all the time — and then not respond to the kick or the bite, like it didn’t happen, because that just reinforces the behavior.”

Is this something every teacher can master? “No. Some people try teaching special ed and burn out. You can exhaust yourself. You go for the small successes — the child tells you she feels sick, or feels angry; or she starts to blow up but then sits down and starts to think. Each kid is a treasure, and each kid can learn if you can open the right doorway.”

What has this taught you about yourself? “I know people can do amazing things. Just like the kids, I do better some days than others and I’ve learned to be kinder to myself. And I know that it takes a team to accomplish the really important things in life. I can kid myself sometimes, but that’s a really important lesson: When it looks like I’m doing a really outstanding job, it’s the team doing outstanding work.”

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