Meet Cidmarie V.
Cidmarie V., following a lifelong calling to support students with autism and other disabilities
We must understand that the world is filled with people from all walks of life, with different abilities, and different ethnicities for a reason and that is so that we can learn from one another.
Meet Cidmarie from New York: Cidmarie was called to serve people with special needs from an early age. As a young girl in Puerto Rico, she spent recess helping teachers with special education students. At home, she served as the "assistant" to her autistic brother's related service team. At every point in her life, she has been a champion for her loved ones with autism. Now, as a special education teacher, she has also dedicated herself to helping people with autism and other disabilities "discover and unlock their true potential". Through her lived experiences, she gives voice to the remaining bias within the education system and calls on elected officials to participate in action-oriented solutions so that students, families, and teachers can get the proper supports they need.
Learn more about Cidmarie in this Q&A:
Tell us a bit about yourself and your connection to autism.
My name is Cidmarie and I am a Licensed Bilingual Early Childhood Special and General Education Teacher (MSEd). I am currently working with students ages 3-5 in the special education setting. I am also an Autism Speaks Advocate as well as an advocate for my students. I’m connected to autism through family members, friends, and students. One thing I often see in my field is the disparities in diagnosis and intervention. I am an advocate for BIPOC children and adults on the autism spectrum.
What resources and services have you seen benefit your brother and nephew?
I remember the related services team constantly coming in and out of my house when my brother was getting resources and services. My brother received speech therapy, ABA, OT, PT, and special programs among other services through EI, CPSE, and CSE. I was 12 years old then and my brother was 2 years old at the time of diagnosis. That’s when my curiosity sparked. I was obsessed with his progress. I saw how each member of his team worked to have him accomplish goals beyond what was stated in his IEP. I was always the related service team assistant. This planted a seed in me. And now I’m here as an educator. Because of these experiences, I was able to guide my sister with resources and services for my 9-year-old nephew who was diagnosed with autism early on. My brother is now a college graduate with a bachelor's degree in business and a full-time job. My nephew is currently in a special education program, and he's doing great.
As a special education teacher, what are your hopes for your students? When are you proudest of your students?
My proudest moments happen when my students make progress on their goals. Telling a parent or a parent noticing the progress on their own at home is always a plus. That always puts a smile on my face. As an educator, my hope for my students is for them to defy the odds some have placed on them. There are times when a diagnosis puts children and their parents in a box. I would like to see them push past their limits and come out of the box some have put them in, not for others but for themselves; for their own evolution. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know our true potential and possibilities unless we give things a real chance. I’m proudest of my students when they don’t give up on their goals even if breaks need to be given. The completion of a task is so important because shows resiliency and self-advocacy from the students. They get to be proud of their own efforts. This means that they become more interested in their own growth which puts them a step closer to accomplishing their IEP goals, their own goals, my goals, and/or their parent's/caregiver’s goal. Ultimately when my students discover and unlock their true potential is my biggest hope and when I'm most proud.
How did growing up in Puerto Rico shape your views on disparities in access to services within the Hispanic community?
Growing up in Borikén (also known as Puerto Rico) has definitely shaped my views on disparities. Particularly the lack of access to services in the Caribbean community. I remember being 8 and 9 years old and during my recess break, I would go to the special education classroom to help the teachers. I would help in various ways whether it was feeding a peer, playing along with them, or helping on a task. At that time (about 25 years ago) all of the students that were considered special education were in the same classroom whether they had a developmental delay, autism, students with physical disabilities, etc. They were never addressed based on their disability nor there were any accommodations or modifications based on specific and individual needs. Teachers just did the best they could with what they had. Unknowingly this experience prepared me for what was to come, it shaped me.
One of many things that is currently happening in Borikén is the lack of services being provided to students and the lack of resources being provided to teachers and parents. It is difficult for students to get proper access to services with the right amount of frequency. Waiting lists for service providers outside of the schools are long. Oftentimes these appointments take place further away from the town folks live in. Based on their Department of Education website, there are over 100,000 students with disabilities and out of that there are over 7,000 students with autism ages 3-21 years old. This is based on the 2019-2020 academic year. They have yet to post an update since then. Many of the teachers in Borikén don't have the proper support and resources, and they are heavily underpaid compared to anywhere else in the United States. Many protests have taken place because of this. Let’s hope that as we continue to come together as a community we can have a continuous dialogue in order to come up with real action-oriented solutions so that students, families, and teachers can get the proper supports they need.
From your experience speaking to members of Congress in DC and back home, what do you wish elected officials better understood about autism?
I wish members of Congress in DC and back home understood that the number of people being diagnosed with autism is increasing not just in children but also in adults. There are people I know that have received a diagnosis as an adult in their 20’s and 30’s. They feel as though they were overlooked. They’ve thought about the struggle that could have been prevented if only a diagnosis and services were put in effect. There are certain criteria in order to qualify for a diagnosis and services that must change in the education system. Human beings are evolving so should the criteria for diagnosis and services/supports for children and adults, families, and teachers. The prevalence of autism has increased. 24 years ago the prevalence was 1 in 500, and today the prevalence is 1 in 36. It is 2023 and yet we still don’t have a well oiled solution in place. There are many gaps in many areas that causes other gaps in other areas. Disparities in employment for adults on the spectrum is another issue I often see. Many want to work and integrate with society but aren't allowed the opportunity to do so based on biases.
I am an educator in New York and I see disparities in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community. I’ve had instances in which I’ve had a white student on the autism spectrum receive multiple providers at a high frequency such as 5x a week vs a black child with the same diagnosis and similar characteristics receive less related services and at a lower frequency such as 2x a week. I’ve advocated for increase of services on many instances. It’s really sad to see, and it’s very unfortunate that these things are happening in this day and age. Any one would think that at this point we would have found a common ground to be and live in harmony with one another but we are still divided.
Bias within the education system still exists. We all still have a lot of work to do as a world community.
I would like to remind members of Congress that it takes listening to the needs of those who are currently teaching out in the field in order to make the appropriate changes. I would love for them to come out in the field one day. All it takes is one day every so often to dedicate to their constituents. No cameras/no media.
Just a plain ol’ sit down with educators. Educators can collect data and have their own outline prepared of their needs, their student's needs, and the families needs. That information can be passed along and filtered through to the member of Congress’s staff. All members can hold a meeting to start addressing some of these needs and focus on solutions on the the things that are needed most by their constituents. It is so simple. It starts with awareness, communication, a plan, and then action/implementation. At the end of the day, these are their constituents, and they have a responsibility to make sure that they are heard, cared for and thriving. It should always be about what is in the best interest of the constituents and education is a significant part.
How can the world/society do better to ensure that people with autism can live in a world of understanding and acceptance?
I know we always hear "Treat others like you would want to be treated." But we rarely stop, sit, and think about the true significance of that statement. What does that exactly mean? One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how hard we are on ourselves. If we were to have more patience, tolerance, compassion, and love for ourselves, we would have more of that to give to others. We must understand that the world is filled with people from all walks of life, with different abilities, and different ethnicities (the human race is the only race) for a reason and that is so that we can learn from one another. We are filled with experiences, and we can gain so much knowledge if we just start conversations without any preconceived notions/judgment. We have so much to learn from ourselves and others. We have been infiltrated with the notion of divide and conquer in this system; and if we can take a step back and dig into the true history of our people, we will find that once upon a time we lived in harmony, in understanding, in patience, in love, in peace, and in compassion. Sometimes I think of how big my students would dream if they knew nothing is impossible and they had the acceptance and support that is needed in the autism community. At the end of the day, a person gets to strive for a better version of themselves no matter what label has been put on them. Labels don’t matter. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all have different capabilities and as long as we use that to lift/help one another we can thrive as a community. It all goes back to love and compassion which is something I hope humanity as a whole can come back to.