By Dave Earl Carpenter
“It’s our job as SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS to take students from their world and show them it’s OK to join us in this world.”
Leslie Hong’s manner is quiet and encouraging as she leads a young student with special needs by the hand to a kid-size beanbag. Her classroom at first glance looks like any preschool: alphabet letters ringed about the walls, miniature chairs, kids aimlessly bouncing about in various stages of unrest. But Hong, a special-needs preschool instructor at Cleveland Elementary in Pasadena — who teaches a class designed specifically for children with autism — begins this class giving every student close, one-on-one contact.
“My class is a sensorimotor class, so we’ve found that physically holding students is kind of mind-opening for them,” says Hong, wrapping a blanket around each of her students in turn and letting them bask for a few moments on top of a cushy beanbag.
Each child in the class sits at attention waiting their turn — a clear look of anticipation on their small faces as they watch their classmates being rocked in the comfort of the blanket.
“When I squeeze them like this, it calms them down and helps them to focus,” she explains. “Proprioception — which is movement of the joints — gives information to the joints and produces calmness.”
Hong became a special education teacher four years ago after her involvement in college working at a junior high after-school program. She had developed a bond with a young girl in the class with Down syndrome. It was her connection with that girl that led Hong to specialize in special education. She knew that’s where she could make a difference.
Hong walks a student named Fernando over to work with a picture-communication system and talks about mainstreaming her students into the typical preschool class next door. “For my kids, this preschool is their first experience with school, so my goal is to get them ready to be able to sit and pay attention in a blended inclusion class. Not everybody is going to achieve that — and that’s OK.”
Hong is realistic about the challenges her students face. She is also a natural at working with kids with special needs — a human conduit connecting these students with autism to the rest of the world.
“The best thing about this job is that the smallest victory can make your day. Last week, one of our kids raised her hand and motioned during ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,’ and that was the very first time in two years that she did a hand motion with our class.
“That might be a small thing for someone else,” says Hong proudly, “but for our staff that was the best day ever.”