Special Ed Teacher – 1973

What was the coursework like in the early 1970’s for young people studying to become special education teachers?

This was around the time that Mimi began searching for answers about George. It was during this time period that I studied to become a special education teacher. Mimi and I never met back then. George never attended the school at which I taught. But I think, now, he could have. I find that something to chew on.

After I decided to become a special education teacher, I naturally began looking at college programs that would work for me. The state special education certifications offered at the time were varied and specific. There was no cross categorical certification. Training was specialized. I could train to work with kids with hearing impairment. I could choose to work with children who were visually impaired, OR those with intellectual disabilities, OR with those who had physical disabilities. Each required some different coursework and a different state certification. Coursework for autism was not offered.

As I write this, I am not sure if I have used the currently accepted descriptors for these categories. I am certain that the words on the certifications back then would be considered very socially unacceptable, politically incorrect, or generally cringeworthy today! I won’t even tell you the wording that appeared on my original teacher certification. I was thankful that, when I earned an additional certification in Gifted Education in 1996, my teaching certificate was reprinted. All of the special ed terms that appeared on my original certification document were replaced with the terms in use at the turn of the century. (Doesn’t that make me sound old?) Acceptable wording has changed since then.

But—moving on with my story.

After looking at colleges, I chose a local college that offered a four-year program that immersed me in the world of special education from my freshman year.

I wanted to become certified to work with children with physical disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities, two separate certifications. I would also be certified in general education.

Some of the local schools for children with various disabilities reached out to my college for volunteers.  A friend and I enjoyed leading a group of visually impaired girls as their Girl Scout leaders throughout our college years. Here, we learned first hand the challenges of modifying activities for earning badges.

As a freshman or sophomore, this same friend and I were invited to go on a field trip with teachers and students from a school for elementary through high school students with physical disabilities and students who had both physical and intellectual disabilities. Our trip was to Grant’s Farm, a great local attraction that has been in operation for about sixty-five years.

In 1970 this destination, as most places, was not handicapped accessible.

A friend and I found ourselves responsible for pushing the wheelchair of a teenage girl over the thick gravel paths that wove through the venue. We also managed to help her to navigate the non-accessible bathroom stall. Fortunately, she was fairly independent once we got her near enough. An added challenge was that this young woman probably weighed over 175 pounds.

During my college years, I also volunteered sometimes at this same school, acting as a scribe for students who were not able to hold a writing instrument. Of course, technology as we know it today was unavailable, but I was amazed at the ability of many students to manipulate headgear for various purposes.

The head of the college special education was an amazing, experienced educator with her finger on the pulse of all current special education of the time. My student teaching experiences included additional opportunities in all my fields of certification.

I remember hearing about the difference between speech and language disorders. I can recall trying to get my head around the meaning of a learning disability. It’s been a few years. There are many specifics I do not remember.

I do know that I never heard the word autism as a college student who graduated in 1973 with a certification in special education. I never heard the word during any of my student teaching experiences or in my two years teaching in a special school.

This is the world in which George and Mimi lived that week the bee stings took them to the hospital. This is the era in which, as she said, “I knew in my heart he was autistic.” This is the age in which, if George got that diagnosis, Mimi believed she would be called a “refrigerator mother” and blamed for his struggles. She did not know that by this time, the theory was slowly being abandoned.

Psychiatrists were using the word autism. From what I read about the period from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, many of the children who were exhibiting autistic behaviors were put in residential schools while their mothers were undergoing the indignity of being rehabilitated by the doctors. Or perhaps, if their parents were creative, they were in private schools established by families for their own children. Mothers were burdened with guilt as they were treated to overcome their coldness.

The parents were being educated, not the children, it seems.

Maybe that’s why, as a special education teacher, I was not taught about autism. Maybe that’s why, when I taught children in a self-contained special school of close to four hundred students, I never heard the word autism in the early 1970’s. I wonder now.

(You might be interested in checking out this short article from 1948 which appeared in Time Magazine.)

4 thoughts on “Special Ed Teacher – 1973

  1. Granted a lot changed through the years, but when Declan was diagnosed in 2014 I was so far from educated or understanding autism. I graduated from graduate school in 2001 and worked for the department of MH/MR. By 2014, it wasn’t called that anymore either. In graduate school, we never talked about autism even though it was in the DSM. Well, we touched lightly on the disorder – it was a PDD that was for the severely impaired. I think my background is why I fought the diagnosis so much at first. What I knew had changed. And this was all in the 2000’s. I can’t even imagine what this whole process was like for Mimi and other parents like her then.


      1. I think a lot changed when the autism spectrum was created. I was schooled “old school” as it wasn’t created then and I missed a ton. You probably saw so much more focusing on special education and different disabilities including a lot of autism cases that were undiagnosed.


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