Despite autism, York alumna succeeds as a teacher

When York alumna Carole Ann MacDonald was in Grade 2, she was wrongly diagnosed as being mildly retarded. It would take years before the correct diagnosis was made. By that time MacDonald was well on her way to success and her final year of teacher’s college. MacDonald has Asperger syndrome (AS), a high-functioning form of autism.

No matter what the label or diagnosis, MacDonald was not about to let it stand in her way. To date, she has earned three degrees at York – BA ’95, BEd ’04 and MEd ’08, works as a special education teacher at a public school in Brampton and is hoping to earn her PhD in education. She has scaled huge barriers to get where she is today and continues to struggle with AS in her quest to go even higher.

Left: Carole Ann MacDonald

MacDonald was labelled as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and later as having an unspecified mental health illness. Her parents were told not to expect her to advance beyond a life-skills program in Grade 8. “That can be very hurtful. They made me feel ashamed to be disabled,” MacDonald says of her early experiences in the education system. “It really affected my self-esteem.”

AS was once, and still is to some degree, a little-known disorder that is often misdiagnosed. Today, MacDonald has far exceeded the expectations of her primary school teachers. She is a mother of a 12-year-old girl, she sits on the Board of Directors for the Aspergers Society of Ontario and is a teacher with a mission to make life easier for disabled children. At Greenbriar Senior Public School, MacDonald teaches students in Grades 6 to 8 who also have AS.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the assistance York provides through the Office for Persons with Disabilities played a major part in her success. The support York has provided to her has had a huge trickle-down effect. She now supports her students in their efforts to succeed in elementary school and in high school and several of them now hope to also obtain post-secondary education,” says MacDonald’s mother Pam. “Several of her students have successfully integrated into the main stream and some have even gone on to achieve honour roll status.”

When MacDonald was hired at Greenbriar through the Peel District School Board, she was naturally nervous. “I was worried the parents would ask for a regular teacher, but the parents embraced me and were really supportive,” she says. “Overall, I’m successful at teaching autistic children.” This is her fourth year teaching in a program that is a first of its kind. “The Peel District School Board saw my disability as ‘wow, what an opportunity.’ There are so few role models for children with autism, especially in education," she adds. “These children are autistic and they face the self-esteem and learning challenges that go along with that disability.”

Right: Carole Ann MacDonald with her daughter Brooke Magel

As a teacher with Aspergers, MacDonald understands those challenges. She tries to give her students opportunities to boost their self-esteem and simple strategies to help them cope. “I teach them to never take no for an answer. I tell them they will probably be told no the first time, but to keep knocking on the door until it’s a yes,” she says. One of the doors MacDonald wants to see them knocking on is for postsecondary education. She says there are too few AS children going to university and she wants to change that.

For MacDonald helping children with disabilities was always a prime goal. It was a toss up, however, between becoming a children’s lawyer and fighting for disabled children’s rights or a teacher helping these kids at the ground level. “I can help disabled children either way,” she says. “And I love it. I get up in the morning and I love going to work. How many people can say that?”

MacDonald is no slouch when it comes to academics. She made the dean’s list for her BA and her BEd, even though it takes her twice as long to complete assignments than a person without a disability and she needed certain accommodations, such as classrooms with a lot of bright natural light and help understanding written instructions. Most AS people are extremely articulate, but have difficulties in other areas, particularly socially, although social skills training can go a long way.

Left: Carole Ann MacDonald and daughter Brooke Magel

Her professors were wonderful, she says, but now she feels like she’s hit a roadblock. She would like to get her PhD at York, but feels she wouldn’t be able to compete with regular candidates for the few spots available in the Faculty of Education’s program. She did compete like everyone else for a spot in the MEd program, but feels there should be an Access Initiative program to help admit students with disabilities at the grad level in addition to the undergraduate level.

“I feel like I’ve kind of reached the glass ceiling,” says MacDonald. Yet, she is passionate about earning her PhD at York as well as encouraging and helping the University develop an autism research facility where all the faculties could work together. “If we had one central body at York it would be easier to share research and knowledge of the disorder.”

MacDonald’s ambitions don’t end there. She would like to have the opportunity to bring awareness to the legal system about the disabled community, to educate judges and lawyers on the needs and challenges. “Autistic people face a huge amount of discrimination in the legal system. This needs to stop,” she says.

She would also like to write a book about autism, a collection of teaching and learning strategies for parents and educators from the perspective of someone who faces the challenges of AS every day.

She is already bringing awareness to the public about AS as the co-producer of an educational video about autism, What Do You See When You See Me?, which featured four of her students. It was funded by Together for Autism. MacDonald’s class has also been the subject of two other videos through the Geneva Centre for Autism in Toronto. In addition, MacDonald has been featured on CBC News Sunday talking about AS and in the National Post.

There are as many as 60 individuals per 10,000 with some form of an autism spectrum disorder. That translates to some 74,356 individuals in Ontario. To learn more about Aspergers syndrome, visit the Aspergers Society of Ontario or the Geneva Centre for Autism Web sites.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer