There is much wisdom to be drawn from Muhammad Ali- such as believe in yourself, stand up for justice, help others, and work hard at your craft. But there is also a surprising lesson to be drawn from his life story— learn to appreciate neurodiversity and neuroplasticity, as did Ali’s legendary trainer and friend, Angelo Dundee.
By Alicia Palelis
Hi! My name is Alicia Palelis. I am a wife, daughter, mom to a son and daughter, a breast cancer survivor, a friend to many and an autism coach. I have been in the field of autism for 14 years and have spent my entire career in the Broward County School District. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Florida, specializing in early childhood and special education. When I first began college, I started with a major in psychology and that quickly changed to education. I decided I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher. In my personal educational experience (Elementary, Middle and High school), I had very limited (if any) interactions with any students with disabilities. So, I did not realize I wanted to be a Special Education teacher until my first pre-internship. It was there that I had my first interaction with autism.
In that pre-Kindergarten special education class were 4 boys with autism. Meeting these boys was all it took for me to get hooked and for me to know- THIS is what I want to do- I want to help these children. These 4 boys were quite severe- one even had to wear a helmet due to his self injurious behavior, another had no hair, because he picked/pulled it all out… But as difficult and significant as their behaviors were, they were able to learn and make progress even just during the short time I was there. And so it began… I dived into the world of autism head first. Every paper I had to write, I focused on autism. I began volunteering with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at UF, and borrowed many books from them to learn all I could on autism.
I began teaching in 2001, in what was then called Complex PLACE, which today is called the Intensive Preschool program. In the preschool program, all of my students had autism, ages 3-5. My next adventure took me to open an autism cluster program (a cluster of self contained ESE classes for students with autism) in Hollywood, FL. A few years later, I opened another cluster program in west Miramar. I remained there for ten years. The district began to change the model of the autism cluster to try to keep the students in their home school rather than have the students go to another neighboring school. So, instead of having four or five self-contained ESE classrooms on one campus, there is only one or two self-contained for the students with autism at the child’s home school. This is currently where my path has led me. I am currently at three different elementary schools within the Pembroke Pines/Miramar area. My passion is teaching others about children on the autism spectrum. So, what better place for me to be than at three schools opening these new autism programs?! Like myself, when I was in college, there are many teachers out there with little to no experience with children on the spectrum. With a rate of 1 in 68, it is now vital for teachers to be aware and have an understanding of autism and different learning styles. I know first hand how important it is to embrace differences- and once you understand, you can see the awesomeness of autism.
My role as autism coach is to assist and support all staff in the ESE class designed for autistic style learners. I oversee the progress of all of the students within that self-contained class and encourage inclusion opportunities. I train school staff on strategies for autistic style learners -especially in the areas of communication, sensory, social skills, behavior and independent functioning strategies. I assist school staff with conducting functional behavior assessments positive behavior intervention plans, and creating Individualized Education Plans. I provide the families with support and resources. I also hold a monthly support group, Family Connections, for the families of special needs children. I try to create a community of awareness and understanding for those that are diverse, specifically on the autism spectrum. I have many roles supporting students with autism in the elementary school campus, these are just a few.
I see the role of autism coach as being very vital to the future of the neurodiverse community– to foster acceptance of all those that think and act differently. This role should inspire others to develop similar thought processes and to encourage others to think outside of the box when working with students that need something different to help them learn and be successful, no matter what label they have. These students may need more project-based learning, or they may need to use their interests as topics of study. Ways of decreasing anxiety and increasing social thinking are key elements to helping these students be successful in their school environment. If you just teach the academics, without teaching the other important aspects of our school life, these students may struggle. But if you incorporate teaching social skills, coping skills and setting expectations while teaching the academics, all students will be more successful.
I will blog on our Different Brains website to bring another perspective to our neurodiverse world. I have dedicated my professional career to helping improve the lives of children on the autism spectrum. I am hoping to bring some of my experiences and knowledge to help more people by reaching them over the internet.
Alicia Palelis has been an autism coach for Broward County Schools for 12 years. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Florida, specializing in early childhood and special education. She is presently overseeing three new programs in the southwest area. She has dedicated her professional career to helping improve the lives of children on the autism spectrum.