By Dr. Katie Krammer
I want to talk about what it is like to find out your son has autism when you have a PhD in special education. At minimum I knew that Trey, who is now five years old, had an expressive language delay when he was only saying or signing seven words at age two. But there were other behaviors, other warning signs that started piling up making it impossible for me to ignore. In my mommy heart I wanted to believe that everything was ok, but my training and experience told me otherwise. Trust me, I wanted to think it was just limited to language; but I knew that it wasn’t so I pushed on despite many people in my life arguing with me that “so and so was a late talker and look at him/her now,” or “he’ll catch up,” or my favorite “I just wanted to think there was something wrong because I work in the special education field.” Yes, someone actually said that to me. Can you imagine, wanting your child to have autism? At any rate, in the end I was proven right when after three days of evaluations, the Cleveland Clinic told us on November 18, 2013 that Trey indeed had ASD (Autism). In the beginning, part of me suddenly felt like I knew nothing even though I had plenty of people who indicated that I was lucky to have a background in special education. When you find yourself on the other side of the IEP table in some ways yes, I did have an advantage, but in other ways I just wanted to be treated like any other mom.
I actually started my education at the University of Kansas to become a sign language interpreter and then later moved on to Deaf Education. One of my professors at KU, Dr. Barbara Luetke-Stahlman, had two adopted daughters who were Deaf. Ironically I can remember thinking that I wanted to adopt a Deaf child someday. Little did I know that the universe had other plans for me! So after many years spent focused on Deaf Education, I ended up taking a position in higher education training teachers to work with mild to moderate disabilities including Autism and I am now an Associate Professor of Special Education. Thus, when we got the diagnosis, I considered Kubler-Ross’ (1969) work on death and dying in which she outlines the stages of grief often likened to learning your child has a disability. While I respect that each family has their own experience, for me, this model didn’t fit. I really never experienced denial and certainly didn’t experience the anger or bargaining stages. Now depression? That is another story. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad at the news, and that I’m not still sad from time to time. But the stage I can most relate to is acceptance. Consequently, one of my first thoughts in framing this new adventure (because I do truly see raising a child with autism as an adventure) was to think again about two other professors of mine from KU; Rud and Ann Turnbull. I thought about the model they provided for me in how they raised their son Jay. I saw from them that having a child with a disability can indeed have many positive effects, beyond just acceptance (Turnbull, 2001).
I am not saying all of this happened over night, and that there aren’t days where I wish I could wave a magic wand and take his Autism away. But, I am now able to say that being a parent to a child with a disability has made me not just a better parent, but a better professional and overall a better person. I have even more patience both at home and at work. I have more empathy and I am a more reflective practitioner. With everything I teach them I think to myself “am I doing all I can to prepare the kind of teacher I would want teaching my child?” I share with them the challenges and the joys. I use Trey’s IEPs for case studies in my classes and invite a couple of students to his IEP meetings every year. I have also partnered with another parent and our local state support team for special education and started an Autism Support Group for parents and caregivers. We are now in our second year and have grown to over thirty families who regularly attend. We have become friends and support each other in many ways including providing respite care for one another, being that listening ear, and that shoulder to cry on when need be. Additionally we have a Facebook page with nearly 100 members, we hold Autism parent nights out, playgroups, barbeques, and trade respite care for each other, and we were the leading fundraisers in this year’s Cleveland Walk Now for Autism Speaks. If it weren’t for Trey I would have never had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful new friends, nor would I have had the opportunities I have had to help my community.
In short, I have made it my mission to wear both hats at the same time in order to support others who are beginning or going on this new adventure. I thank not only all of the professors I had along the way, but I also thank Trey who is the joy of my life and has taught me as much if not more than all of my years at KU.
Dr. Katie Krammer is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Lake Erie College (LEC) in Painesville, Ohio. She is also the Coordinator for the Special Education Licensure Program and the Interim Director of Online Learning at LEC. Dr. Krammer prepares future intervention specialists to evaluate, select, plan, and implement research-based methods and instructional strategies to benefit students with mild to moderate disabilities. Her scholarly interests and research focuses on universal design for learning, differentiation, cognitive strategy instruction and collaboration and partnerships; particularly with parents who have children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
Dr. Krammer is a Kansas native who went through an Educational Sign Language preparation program, earned her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, her Master of Science in Special Education, and her Doctorate in Special Education all at the University of Kansas (go Jayhawks!). Before going into higher education, Dr. Krammer spent several years as a sign language interpreter and also as a Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Blue Valley School District. She met and married her husband in 2006 when he was stationed in the Air Force near Kansas City. Upon completing his term in the military she and her husband returned to his home town in Ohio. They have two children; Quinn who is one year old and Trey who is five and has ASD.
Kubler, R. E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Scribner.
Turnbull, A.P., & Turnbull, H. R., III (2001). Families, professionals, and exceptionality: Collaborating for empowerment. Upper Saddler River, NJ: Merrill.