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Boundaries Are Beautiful: What I Learned From Working With Preschoolers With Autism

It was 10 years ago when I first accepted my post as a paraprofessional in a preschool classroom in the Cherry Creek school system. I knew I loved working with children, particularly those younger than five. This classroom was destined to be special for me, it was a preschool classroom for kiddos ages between two and five years old who were diagnosed with autism or learning styles like autism.

I had just left a work environment that was the most toxic you can imagine. Abuse polished to look like admiration and love had been what I had known for years before taking my job as a para in 2012. I had no idea that I was walking around with immeasurable PTSD, and I really had no idea how to take care of myself in a healthy way. I understood that I was creative and playful and was passionate about working with children.

When looking around my new classroom on day one, I could see that the primary color explosion that normally overtook the preschool environment was muted by corrugated plastic sheets fastened to the wooden shelves. There were no posters hanging on the walls, and all but one round carpet at the front center of the room could be found on the floors. I met our first session of children, four young hearts who were mostly non-verbal. These children, although mostly unable to communicate as I was used to, were filled with passions and interests. I saw how a classroom designed for quiet and deliberate play was a way for these kids to not be so overwhelmed with their environments. Overstimulation could lead to meltdowns, to a sense of the world coming off of its axis and never being right again. What I started to realize, as days turned into weeks, weeks turned into years, is I so desperately craved a structured, quiet environment to exist in myself.

I had heard before “bred from chaos, understands only chaos.” This was so true for me at the time of my life when I worked as a para. I was a young person, grappling with the tumultuous end to my parents’ marriage, and the erratic and damaging existence with my previous professional endeavors. My relationship with my boyfriend perpetuated the chaotic mess I woke, ate, and slept in. I had no vision of a life without drama and seemed to be a dust whirl of insecurity and indecision. What I found in my work in a structured classroom was that the predictability of the schedule brought me solace, alongside my students. I learned, from my colleagues and the professionals I worked alongside, that it is important to do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it. I also started to buy into the fact that people can be of service to others without expecting anything in return. Both of these notions were foreign to me but pushed me towards the start of a healthier existence.

While working in the classroom, I learned that boundaries are critical, and demanding what you need is not selfish but necessary.

My students, the gorgeously particular and magically connected, taught me more than I could have ever hoped to have taught them. Because of my time in a classroom designed for order, predictability, and true, genuine connection I was able to walk myself down the road of disarray towards authenticity and health. I owe so much of my character to those who were unable to demonstrate the depth of theirs in a way society as a whole understands. Now, the kids I worked with are in middle school and doing amazing things. I hope that everyone who meets them learns the way I did, that boundaries are beautiful, and freedom can only be found in a foundation of the predictable.