school for kids with autism

Melissa Di Giacomo

Education Coordinator / Partner

What is Autism? I was faced with this question during a lecture in my Brain and Behaviour class as a psychology undergrad at York University.  My professor notified my class of an upcoming group presentation/assignment, and we were offered various choices of “hot” topics to choose from. Autism happened to be one of them. As my partner and I contemplated, we eventually chose Autism. As for myself, I did recall hearing this famous word throughout various news articles and research papers. After all… it was the year of 2004, and Autism began to make a grand entry into the world of research and media. However, I was unfamiliar with its meaning. Thus, I took the opportunity to immerse myself into the world of Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders. My partner and I read countless books, articles, research papers and watched an abundant amount of video’s to help us understand the true meaning of Autism.  None of the less, our presentation was a hit, and we received a final grade of an A. Before we knew it, graduation had finally arrived, and we were sunken into the world of unemployment. I received my BA with honours in psychology, but something told me that this was not enough. I had to make a serious choice as to what I wanted my career to entail of, and knew that I would somehow make it into the world of Autism.

During the summer of 2004, I worked around the clock between two jobs just to sustain a living, but knew that waitressing and retail wasn’t going to be my end all. I drove uptown to the Geneva Centre for Autism, and offered to volunteer within their respite program. I was intrigued with the staff and clients, and was happy to interact with children with Autism. Shortly afterwards, they presented me with an amazing job offer as their co-ordinator for the Bridges Summer Camp Program. This position involved   collaborating and networking various college/university students (such as myself) who were interested to work in our program. This gave me the opportunity to manage a wonderful team of students, as well as becoming involved in an integrated summer camp program for children with Autism. Once the summer was complete, I maintained my position at Geneva for an entire year as an evening /weekend respite worker. But still at the back of my mind, I knew that this wasn’t enough…I required something a little more challenging.

After returning from a long trip in Greece, I enrolled in a new pilot project. In the fall of 2005, Seneca College offered a new program in the field of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) in Autism and Behavioural Sciences. I immediately enrolled, and was super excited to learn more about ABA and the principles of Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI). Throughout the year, I further deepened my understanding of Autism, and various systematic approaches of teaching children with Autism. My co-op placements in a section 20 classroom within the school board, as well as a private centre for IBI allowed me to practice the principles of ABA/IBI, and how to work within a team environment. This is when I became obsessed with Autism, and was super excited to pursue a career in behavioural therapy.

In March of 2007, I received a position as an instructor therapist in a wonderful agency known as Surrey Place. Throughout the next 6 ½ years, I submerged myself into the world of Autism. I received the opportunity to work across three different teams, both within the programs of IBI and School Stream. I was grateful to have met a variety of families, and dedicating my passion and determination to teach and support their children with Autism.  As I watched each child grow and move on from our program into the public school system, I felt a sense of pride knowing that I did something positive for their lives, and hoped that their accomplishments would transition positively into their future classrooms.

But what exactly happens in those classrooms? How does the Ontario Curriculum support the teaching strategies of Autism? How are my students accommodated into their new environment? These questions began to haunt me, and were something that I was curious enough to solve and answer. In the fall of 2013, I left Surrey Place, and pursed a degree in education at York University.

During my year as a student teacher, I met Andrea Kinnear in my very first practicum (Full Day Kindergarten classroom). We instantly connected; saw we had many things in common and knew we would become great friends. Among our commonalities, Autism was one of them. As a supervising therapist, Andrea offered me a chance to work on her team with the Thompson family.  This is when I met Daniel. I immediately fell in love with him, and saw the huge potential he sustained as a student. I also became intrigued with the strong will and determination from his parents, Serena and Maurice, to ensure that Daniel would receive the best therapy and supportive teaching environment that he deserved.

Upon graduation from teachers college, I luckily received an occasional teaching position in the public school board, and began to experience life as a teacher. I began to network across various schools, principals, staff and students. This interaction entailed me to teach a diverse number of students from various communities, socio-economic backgrounds and developmental levels. As thankful as I am to have received this opportunity, I also began to miss the beautiful, colourful world of Autism. The Lighthouse Learning Development Centre is this colourful world. This is what I miss, and this is where I belong. By beginning this new venture with my talented partner, Serena, as well as our supportive team, we will create a learning environment enriched with all the necessary tools, resources and skills that our students can accomplish and achieve. We believe that each individual with Autism is a true rock star. To my future students at the Lighthouse Learning Centre, let’s take the world in our hands and reach for the stars! My name is Melissa, and this is my story ☺