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A Personal Encounter with Autism in Turkey

In 2006, I obtained my bachelor’s degree in English literature, which allowed me to teach young students in kindergarten for eight years. While teaching, I met a 4-year-old boy in my class and I just could not understand his behaviors! He seemed to only want to lie down behind the classroom door and stare at the wheels on a particular car toy for several hours. Interestingly, he was only looking at and not touching the toy! He seemed to always want to be alone and never spoke with other kids. It appeared as though he was not aware of anyone else in his surroundings, not even his parents.

One day, a psychologist was visiting our school and I asked her about this boy and his challenges. After the psychologist observed the boy for a while, she told me that this boy had something called autism. It was the first time that I had heard about autism.

After that, I began to research autism and educate myself on the topic. I read every book that I could find on autism at the time and the more I read, the more confused I became. I couldn’t understand the behaviors of individuals with autism and found myself asking how and why they would engage in these behaviors.

Two years after my first encounter with autism, I came across an announcement about an Applied Behavior Analysis postgraduate program at the Social Science Institute at Anadolu University. It was the first and only program on ABA and autism in Turkey.

Immediately, I applied and waited patiently to learn the outcome of my application. I was very anxious to learn more about this hidden disorder that was apparently affecting thousands of children. Finally, after three months, I was accepted into the program and began my amazing journey! The program was great, but very challenging. We had amazing instructors, who taught us many things, and we had the chance to work directly with autistic children as well.

I could write many things about my experiences with children with autism so far, but I will only share one story here. One day at school, I was standing alone with an autistic child in a classroom. It was the second week of the school term. The boy was standing near the window and I was standing next to him. The boy’s mom was in the garden and she waved to us. I realized that he didn’t see his mom. So, I pointed to her and said, “Look who is there!” But he didn’t look her way. I tried again and again and still no response. I was confused by what was happening so I mentioned this incident to my instructor and was informed that this was an issue with “joint attention”.

That day, I decided that I would focus my thesis on joint attention. After reading many articles and books on joint attention, I informed all of my instructors about my decision, but they all told me that it was a very difficult subject. Thanks to my thesis advisors, Elif Tekin-İftar and Gönül Kırcaali-İftar, who supported my thesis on joint attention, my thesis dissertation was the first and only study on joint attention in Turkey.

Currently, I am pursuing my PhD degree in special education. Unfortunately, there is no ABA doctoral program in Turkey yet. I hope that there will be soon. Now, I have four students with autism spectrum disorders between 3 and 11 years of age.

I have worked with one of them, a 3-year-old, for over a year now. When I started to work with him, he didn’t have any communication skills. We worked on achieving joint attention and gradually, he started to use some words. When he said his first word, “No”, both his mother and I cried tears of happiness. There are not enough words to describe my feelings! Now, he can speak, but still needs to learn many things and we are still working together.

I have developed an interest in studying self-injurious behavior and echolalia and believe I will focus my doctoral thesis on one of these topics. Every day, I learn at least one lesson from the children I work with and I leave school with new insights.

Autism is a very different way of seeing the world. I often wish I could somehow go into the minds of these children with autism to get a better idea of exactly what they are thinking.

I love my job.

Hatice Bilmez

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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