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Autism Heroes: Sarah Easterling

Hero: Sarah Easterling, teacher, Missouri City, Texas

Nominator quote: “She worked very hard to discover things about my child that I didn’t know about him. Things that would motivate him and keep his interest. I can’t think of one general-education teacher that embraces their differently abled children like Sarah.”

Sarah Easterling teaches English and science to fourth-graders at Palmer Elementary School in Missouri City, Texas. At Palmer, children with special needs, including autism and dyslexia, join mainstream classes. (A co-teacher in the classroom makes this possible.) “Working with these students is my passion,” she says. “I like that they have a different way of thinking.”

One of Easterling’s strategies is to uncover each student’s interests. She uses these interests to keep everyone engaged. “All students are motivated by different things, whether they have an autism diagnosis or not,” she says. “Some are motivated by sports, some by candy, some by computers. It’s a matter of getting to know students one by one.”

One of Easterling’s students loves food, particularly fruits and vegetables. So she instituted fruit and vegetable Fridays. If the student did all his work that week, she would sit with him at lunch. Together they would sample a novel kind of produce. “Other kids would notice he was getting those fruits or vegetables, and he was able to start conversations with them,” she says. He could also share the food with others, opening a social interaction.

Another student worked best in three-minute stretches, punctuated with short breaks on the computer. If Easterling noticed he was frustrated, she would remind him of the upcoming computer time. “That gives him ownership of his time,” she says.

Easterling makes it a point to verbally highlight each student’s strengths. One student with autism was particularly good at computer games. Easterling would describe his skill during class. If anyone had problems with a game, she suggested they go to him for advice. “Focus on ability versus disability,” Easterling says. “What can they do that others can’t?”

Easterling also makes an effort to engage students with autism in social situations. One boy frequently played on his own during recess. Easterling recruited to play on the swings a few other students she knew he liked. Then she suggested he join them. He soon began to play with the other children on his own. “I think he just needed that confidence,” she says. The student’s mother was struck when she saw other children calling out to her son. “She says she’d never seen him have friends before,” Easterling says. “Sometimes it just takes that extra effort, making them more aware of social situations. That can be life-changing for them.”

To parents whose children the teacher doesn’t seem to know so well, Easterling suggests sitting down with the teacher and telling him or her what drives their child. “Find what motivates that student,” she says, “and use it as a foundation to help the student grow academically and socially.”