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Steve Hart’s Career with Autistic Children

I graduated from Southern Illinois University with a B.S. Degree in Special Education and Communication. I began teaching autistic children at Washburn School in Winnetka, Illinois in 1969. Although Eugen Bleuler coined the word “autism” in schizophrenic patients who screened themselves off and were self-absorbed as far back as 1908, when I started teaching there were no visible, strong advocates to embrace autism as a disability in dire need of funding. At the start of my educational career, the special education children, especially those with autism, were often ignored, and ostracized by people that shared a different educational philosophy of the time. Autism remained an incurable mystery mental disorder, often undiagnosed as what it was, and still is.

During the sixties, if a student did not conform to the traditional way of teaching and the autistic child had difficulty learning to read, the school system unfortunately labeled these children as ‘retarded’, or ‘emotionally disturbed’. The unfortunate labeling was accepted at that time. We know now, in hindsight, that very often the autistic students learned better with a visual approach to their curriculum. The sixties was a time when many parents were often unable to accept their own ‘exceptional’ child, especially if their child was autistic. Autistic children were pushed aside to make room for what was considered a “normal” intellectually healthy student. With today’s technology and better awareness of autism, I feel certain these foolish beliefs will altogether be expelled. It is my hope that autism teachers will never experience what I experienced during my educational career that spans over forty years. Through all my experience working with autistic children, I feel now, more than ever, that I can teach college students that share my same interests and beliefs about autism and how it affects parents, and others that socially contact the autistic persons. The goal will be to further develop the positive awareness of autism, and know that one day autism will be a disability of the past.

After receiving my Master’s degree in 1972 from Northeastern Illinois University, I started courses towards my Doctorate degree at Roosevelt University, but as a married man with two children to support I gave up these studies to make a living; not only teaching exceptional children but pursuing my radio and television career. There were no courses in ‘autistic studies’ at the time, and often, when working with this population I felt I was working in the dark. I had to create my own curriculum with very few experts to help me. It was frustrating.

My first classroom consisted of a variety of ‘exceptional students’ with various disabilities. Most of my students however were autistic. At that time I earned an annual salary of $5200 a year, equivalent to $33,000 in today’s economy.

My first daughter Holly was born in 1970. She is now a proud and wonderful mom of a beautiful girl. My second daughter, Carrie, was born three years later and has two terrific boys. Thank goodness my entire family is physically and emotionally healthy. I owe most of this to my wife, Phyllis. While I was out most of the time taking care of two careers, Phyllis primarily raised our children. Her dedication to our children is something that is a tribute to Mothers throughout the world.

Besides the many special education courses I took in school, I also studied autism with two pioneers in the field at that time. I was given the opportunity to work with Dr. Mary Giffin, a psychiatrist at the Joslyn Clinic in Winnetka, Illinois from 1969-1973. Dr. Giffin had a medical practice working with autistic children. She was also an expert in the field of ‘infantile autism’. This was also the time that some of my mentors participated in developing what is now called “The Autistic Spectrum”. It was basically a spectrum to identify certain behaviors that would identify children with autism from the most serious to the least invasive. Dr. Mary Giffin would often invite me to her office to discuss this spectrum in order for me to develop an individualized program for each of my students. In today’s world a similar spectrum is used to write a child’s IEP (Individual Educational Plan). Each IEP has specific goals and objectives to help the student reach his or her maximum capacity. This is just one example of how far the field of autism has developed.

In those days, I kept my own data in order to accomplish the same thing as today’s IEP. The data I kept helped me identify autistic children from the age of three (infantile autism) in order to determine where to start with each of my students. Some were so severe that I had no clue of how to develop a specific curriculum for them. Over the years Dr. Giffin appeared on my Chicago radio shows ‘Kids Speak’ and ‘Audio Jam’ to converse with parents and children about this disability.

Autism was as difficult to understand then as it is today. However, during the 60s very few psychiatrists, educators, and social workers believed there could ever be a cure for autism. Today, thankfully, there is a more positive outlook toward finding a cure. Until that time we must continue working to recognize the symptoms early, and be as tolerant and understanding of persons with autism. Patients, tolerance, and understanding are key words.

My personal belief is “Early Learning has always been the answer”. Children diagnosed early had the best chance of living what is called a ‘normal’ life today. There was a down side as to what could be done years ago. Wealthy parents were able to higher behaviorists, special teachers, and many professionals that made a monumental difference in the developmental process of an autistic child. Parents that could not afford these services were often left to fend for themselves. Many a child ended up in a State facility because the parents could not handle the child’s disability within the home.

I also communicated with Dr. Bruno Bettelheim. At that time Dr. Bettelheim was considered the leading authority in autism. My correspondence with Dr. Bettelheim helped me gain a great deal of knowledge in the field of autism. Dr. Mary Giffin, and Bruno Bettelheim became my friends and consultants. Unfortunately, Dr. Bettelheim was criticized a great deal for his beliefs. It is not hard to understand why Bruno was in that position. Revolutionaries in most fields are looked upon as “nut” cases, until proven wrong. Both encouraged me to study hard, and never give up learning how to teach and work with autistic children. After all these years I am still following their advice. Not a day goes by without learning something new about “autism”.

Did I mention my brother had a disability? He did. In today’s world, he would have been placed in a special education classroom. Where on the “autistic spectrum” he would end up is still a mystery to me.

I felt sad for Larry, and always knew in my heart and mind I wanted to understand what was wrong with him. His screaming attacks and his ability to express himself and relate to others in an appropriate way when expressing sensory outbursts were unbearable to my parents and yes, even to me. To make matters worse, my mother was very ashamed of Larry, and she showed it. I felt this need to help him cope with whatever was bothering him. Sadly, Larry passed away at the age of fifty-six. We were close. I hope my efforts and knowledge made some kind of a difference in his life. With all the negativity I was surrounded by, and the ridicule I was subjected to during my early professional life, I still decided that to give up searching for answers to my brother’s disability would be wrong. In order to help my brother and other special needs children, I decided to stay in the classroom, earn my Master’s degree, and learn as much about autism that was available at the time. It is interesting that the feeling of dedication never entered my mind. The only thing I wanted were answers to help my brother. Within a short time the bond with my students became very strong. I was hooked! For whatever reason, I experienced a strong emotional dedication for this field. I still carry the same feelings to this day.

I presently teach autistic students for Broward County Public Schools in Florida. Often special education teachers say they do not have a favorite student. Do not believe this for a minute. Although I treat each one of my students equally, there is always one that stands out for many reasons; the main reason for me is “kindness”. With the parents’ permission, I am able to talk about Justin. Justin is considered to be a classic “autistic” child.

Justin is sixteen years old and works diligently to accomplish his goals. One characteristic of many children with this disability is the lack of affection towards others. Although this is observed in many autistic children, ironically, Justin is just the opposite. Although he has his moments, Justin is not only affectionate; he is also very kind to his peers and to the adults he works with. I attribute most of Justin’s positive behaviors to his parents, Leslie and Jose. Over the past three years I have become very close to his parents. I feel that I am not only Justin’s teacher, but in so many ways his mentor. He loves math, reading, and art. Justin is the kind of child that says ‘thank you’ when he is given something without being prompted to do so. However, Justin’s most positive quality is the warmth and kindness he shows to other people. He also has a very close relationship with his half-brother and both of his parents. Leslie and Jose are simply great parents. Often parents overcompensate by giving their disabled child everything he or she wants. Leslie and Jose have an opposite view of the word “overcompensating”. Justin is not spoiled in the true sense of the word. Like most teenagers, he will ask for anything that catches his fancy when going shopping. Mom and dad have raised Justin to understand the meaning of “NO”. This is not an easy task to teach an autistic child. I have often told Leslie, Justin’s mom, “If I had a child with this disability, I would want a child just like Justin”. He has his moments of flapping, running around the room, and other autistic behaviors. However, during the years I have worked with Justin these behaviors have been dramatically reduced. If I could look into a crystal ball, I think I would see that when Justin reaches adulthood, he will be able to make a positive contribution to society. With permission, I have also been given the OK to post his picture. Often it is said the “eyes” are the center of the soul. When one looks into Justin’s eyes, one just knows that he is a warm and loving child. With admiration I am proud to say Justin has been my student for many years.

We have come a long way towards “autism awareness”. However, we still have a long way to go. Through public awareness, with such Websites as “Autism Speaks”, and the small contributions from people like me, the present and the future looks much better than it did when I first began my career in this field. I truly believe, in the not so distant future, there will be a cure for autism. My main goal upon retirement is to teach classes in autism at a University, and go on speaking engagements to help parents that have autistic children of their own. I am proud to say that I was awarded “Teacher of the Year” for 2011-2012.

Throughout my radio and television career, I maintained the same dedication and passion to the field of autism that I have today. When I look back on the years I spent producing children’s radio and television shows, I realize the many opportunities I had in show business. I truly believe if I had pursued my broadcasting career, I would be a rich man today. Sometimes I reflect back on my life and think “What If?” I am positive that anyone in my age category reading this biography will relate to “What If?” questions throughout their own lives.

I have co-authored ten books with Dr. Florence Baccus called “IT’S FUN TO READ FOR AUTISTIC CHILDREN”. Dr. Baccus and I are still working together. Hopefully we can make these books available to the public in the not so distant future.

If you would like to make a donation to increase awareness of Autism, please go to http://www.autismspeaks.org. It is a wonderful organization in which to get involved.

If you would like to have Steve Hart speak to your organization about Autism Awareness, please contact him directly at hartsteve@earthlink.net.




Copyright 2017 Steve Hart.