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Thank You Diane

This is a guest blog post by Ali Dyer, the Social Media Coordinator at Autism Speaks. Her older brother Jeff has autism.

Sometimes people save you. You know the ones I am talking about; they swoop in and pull you off the tracks. Well in 1990, my family’s life changed. The change came swiftly in a bright, loving, energetic package.  My brother Jeff was five embarking on his educational path, and an angel came to guide him. That angel was Diane.

To say Jeff was a handful is an understatement. Programs and services didn’t exist the way they do now. Jeff was attending a Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)school where the population was diverse. It would be unfair to say that his learning was stunted, but options were limited. There were people that loved and cared about him there and he was safe, but the weekly phone call that ‘Jeff drank the water in the swimming pool’ was growing stale. Quite frankly that was the least of our worries – at home we were dealing with no sleep, smashing VCRs and other electronics out of frustration, bathroom issues, etc. We were just working to get through the day.

Enter Diane.

It was love at first sight when we met Diane. She was bursting with positive energy. Diane saw Jeff and her students as people; people with potential. She didn’t look at their disability. Diane respected them for their courage and fortitude in facing the world each and every day with their varied challenges. They were all celebrated for their accomplishments, but were held accountable when they broke the rules. You couldn’t pull anything past her.

Diane helped to spearhead the move into the public schools. I was lucky enough to be part of the incredibly unique and loving family that was Franklin Avenue School. The initial class had six students and they became known as, ‘the boys.’ To this day, people still ask about ‘the boys,’ who are now grown men and all stand well above six feet respectively.

Because Franklin was so small at the time, roughly 200 students, everyone knew the boys. Diane created a ‘Buddy Program’ where kids would come early before school to play on the back playground. It was the place to be. Often she would have to turn children away because it was just too packed! I never had to deal with peers dubbing my brother as ‘different,’ rather he was the ‘cool’ kid. The buddy program paved the way for Jeff’s school career. When he was a senior in high school, fellow seniors, who were former buddies, would be warm and friendly to him.

Diane assembled an incredible team. Terry and Carmel, who taught in the classroom as well, approached each day with such spirit. Nothing fazed them and they were able to find humor in even the stickiest of situations. They were innovative and developed different techniques for each student, providing love and support along the way. It didn’t take much, but Diane got the entire school onboard. From the Principal, ‘Dr. E,’ to the secretaries, the teachers and cafeteria staff – everyone. The boys were welcomed with open arms into any classroom or project. Franklin Avenue was, and still to this day, is a wonderful place.

When the time came for the boys to graduate Franklin none of us knew what to do. They participated in the graduation ceremony, singing along with the songs and accepting their diplomas, just like everyone else. Diane would have it no other way, and I promise you, there was not a dry eye in the house.

Change and transition is hard, but I think this move was harder for the families than it was for the boys. Diane prepared them for the middle school, but selfishly, we didn’t want to let her go.

Then came the summer program…

Jeff had access to a summer program through the school district, and guess who took the reins to be the teacher? Yes. Diane. For years and years Diane created the most amazing summers, not just for Jeff, but for me as well.

Diane believed that the most important education these boys could get was being out in the ‘real world.’ The classroom, which they spent next to no time in, was in the same building as a summer playground camp. The boys played kickball and board games with other campers. Diane also created a store to sell goodies – they would go out to shop and then sell them, cash register and all. They would swim everyday and go on all of the trips the camp would go on. Diane welcomed me with open arms into these magical summers.

She would cheer for me, with her fist pump and kick, when I would beat every single boy in camp in ‘Knock Out,’ the same way she would when Jeff ducked his head under water for the first time, or when Adam would hit a homerun in kickball, or when Joey would use his PECS to spell out exactly what he needed. Diane was genuinely thrilled for our accomplishments, no matter how small.

As summers passed, Diane decided she was going to get her bus driver’s license so that she could up and go whenever she and her partner in crime Karen decided to. We would head to the beach weekly, amusement parks, sports games, and so much more. A bus ride was not complete without '101.1 CBS FM' blaring from her boombox. Those days were fun.

As summers passed Diane’s boys became men.

I grew up as well. Diane saw me go from a toddler to a young adult. I remember so vividly talking to her about Jeff and being upset – she let me. She always validated my feelings. I also remember the days when I was “up to no good” making some adolescent follies. She listened, and laughed, and I am sure was thankful that her beautiful daughters had grown out of that stage.

I could never say enough about Diane or do her justice in the written word. She was there for me in ways that no one else was. I know that I could walk into her classroom and be greeted with the same beautiful smile and warmth that only she could provide. Diane helped me to see my brother in ways I wouldn’t have known how.

She also helped me see myself. I know that I am different for having a brother like Jeff – different for the better. There are moments in life when it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But because of all that Diane has taught me, through her example, I am always able to see the light.

So Diane should know how thankful I am for pulling my family off the tracks all of those years ago. But most of all she should know how thankful I am for, well, everything.  

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.