Winning Essay by Dell Z. from Tennessee attends University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

When I was 9, I was diagnosed with autism. By definition, individuals on the autism spectrum have fixed interests and communication difficulties. I could do schoolwork easily, but I struggled with the social nuances of conversation. As a result, I started to work with a school provided Speech and Language Pathologist. Her name was Mrs. Chanta Smith.

Mrs. Smith is exceptional. She is hard-working and carves time from her crazy schedule to meet with everyone who needs help. Mrs. Smith works with nearly 80 students at three different schools each week. In addition, Mrs. Smith treats each student as if they were her own kid and is fully dedicated to helping each child be successful.

When I started meeting with her, I was resistant to accepting help. I would get easily distracted and was obtuse and unpleasant at times. However, Mrs. Smith was not an ordinary special education teacher. She was extremely motivating and accepting. She had more perseverance than I did! She made me feel welcomed and nurtured. We got to work!

I could deliver a great monologue but I had no skill at talking with others. I didn’t know how close to stand to other kids or what would give them weird thoughts. I didn’t know how to read facial expressions or gestures. Mrs. Smith started to open up my world, slowly, to include others. She helped me understand what to say and what to hold back. She expanded my autistic isolation. She knew I had potential at a time when it was hard to see.

Eight years later, I was a speaker at the 7th Annual Chattanooga Autism Conference. I was extremely moved to look out in the audience and see Mrs. Smith! Here I was in the 11th grade, and she had not been my exceptional education teacher since elementary school.

Mrs. Smith inspired me to give back. Over the past few years, I have trained nearly 1200 teachers, future teachers, parents and administrators on autism and classroom accommodations. I help teachers understand unusual behaviors and what is behind them. I try to illuminate the needs of kids on the spectrum as Mrs. Smith illuminated things for me.

There are a few moments in your life, when you can look back and see how someone’s influence improved your life dramatically. I look back to that time and I can see Mrs. Smith’s influence on me. She was the first service provider I worked with and she gave me the basic skills to effectively communicate with others. Later, other teachers would continue to build upon the foundation that Mrs. Smith created. I attribute much of my success over this decade to Mrs. Smith. Without her, I would likely not be attending college, and would not have the skills to hold down a job or even navigate a friendship. I would not be the courteous, empathetic, conscientious man I am today.


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