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Chamber: Educational Support Person of the Year is Mary Johannsen

Mary Johannsen was awarded Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce’s Educational Support Person of the Year. She is pictured with Aaron Bushberger of School District 833. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

It’s hard enough raising kids. An autistic child, however, can present a particular challenge.

Because they sometimes can’t express themselves verbally, their parents may face an arduous trial and error process caring for a child with autism. Should they not like a certain food, they may spit it out. Or they may wake up at 2 a.m., ready to start their day.

Mary Johannsen understands the challenge. Last month, the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce named her the Educational Support Person of the Year for her work with autistic students at Grey Cloud Elementary School.

“It’s a 24-hour job for parents,” she said. “Their sleep patterns are disrupted. Their eating patterns are disrupted. They deserve an award.”

Johannsen, of Cottage Grove, is in her 15th year working as a high needs autism paraprofessional at Grey Cloud Elementary School.

“I think you need patience and a lot of intuition,” she said. “You’ve got to let stuff roll off your back.”

Autism, sometimes referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, refers to a group of neurodevelopmental afflictions that interfere with a child’s ability to communicate, socialize or function, according to the Mayo Clinic. They can be hyperactive, disruptive or withdrawn, depending on the severity of their condition.

Johannsen works with about 18 autistic students at Grey Cloud.

“We have a lot of nonverbal children who don’t speak,” she said. “It’s a challenge figuring out what their wants and their needs are.”

The goal is to help these children achieve as much independence as possible, she said. Often, that means helping them transition to a “mainstream” math, English, science or gym class.

That also means dispelling stereotypes about autism and educating the other students so they feel comfortable, she said. Some people may be afraid of an autistic child because they’re often seen as unpredictable, loud, aggressive and even violent. But that’s hardly the case across the board. There are many highly-functioning autistic children.

“Sometimes they’re the best-behaved ones in the classroom,” she said.

Prior to introducing an autistic child into a class, Johannsen may put students through a series of immersive exercises to help them see the world from the point of view of their new classmate. For example, to give them an idea how hard it can be for an autistic child simply to sit still in class, she might have them sit on a tennis ball.

Or she might have them try to spell a word while another student is shining a flashlight in their eyes or reciting the ABCs into their ear. The intent is to help them see how an autistic child might sometimes feel overwhelmed, since they process and perceive external stimuli in ways that others don’t.

“I tell them, ‘This is what it feels like for them to be in a classroom,’” she said.

Johannsen cut hair professionally for 20 years before she began working at Grey Cloud. She originally picked up the shears to pay for her two-year degree in early childhood special education. She liked cutting hair so much she put her degree on hold.

But the barber profession eventually brought her back around to the education field.

She was volunteering at Grey Cloud Elementary one day when a 7-year-old boy was sent to the nurse’s office for misbehaving. Johannsen and the second-grader knew each other — he was the son of her next door neighbor at the time. She had cut the boy’s hair at her home.

“The nurse was called away to attend to another student,” she said. “They didn’t want to leave him alone. I said, ‘I’ll stay with him.’”

Evidently, someone was impressed with how well they got along. The next day, Johannsen received a call from the principal asking her if she would like to discuss a job with Grey Cloud’s new autism program.

“I’m back doing what my first intention was, so it works out great for me,” she said.

Accomplishments that might seem trivial to most children can represent significant progress for someone with autism, she said.

Johannsen remembers a third-grader who learned to roller skate. The child’s parents could appreciate what big a deal that was — their child wouldn’t even wear a pair of roller skates when Johannsen started working with him. When they saw him skate, the parents were moved to tears, she said.

“I just like it,” she said. “I really like the kids. Small accomplishments mean so much to me.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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