Effective Leadership, Passion, and a 7-Year-Old Autistic Boy

By Greg Martin

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Effective leadership skills learned in one profession usually transfer to most new jobs, so I decided to make a change.

After 18 years of working and serving in numerous roles in Juvenile Corrections (JC), I changed my career path. It was a very hard decision to make after 18 years. I worked with a lot of great and talented people over the years.

Many of those people became good friends or were loyal followers who made me look good through the outstanding work they did on a daily basis serving at-risk youth and their families.

My success at JC is solely because of them, and I will always be indebted to them.

Effective Leadership

One of the main reasons I left JC was that I no longer was receiving the job satisfaction I once did. To be an effective leader, your passion shows in your actions and the way you communicate with others. I truly believe, as a leader, you must be passionate about what you do.

As an effective leader, once you are no longer passionate about what you do, it’s time to rediscover something you can be passionate about.

I have been provided the opportunity to use my prior military experience, and now I serve as a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp Leadership Instructor.

This position allows me to work in our large school district and, most importantly, will allow me to continue to serve youth. I will primarily be working with middle school students, 6th – 8th graders, who choose to join the leadership program.

7 Year Ols Autistic Boy

Martin, You’re In

After about three weeks on the job, I was asked by my Principal to help cover in a classroom for an hour until additional coverage could arrive due to an unforeseen circumstance with the regular teacher.

The classroom could not legally be in session without a certified teacher, even though there were two seasoned paraprofessionals assigned to the classroom. This request came during a time I would not have students in the classroom, and I gladly said, “no problem. “

As my boss explained the assignment to me, I began to have this vision of the high school basketball coach who is down by two points with less than two minutes to play. All his experienced players have fouled out, and he looks at the end of the bench and sees me, the rookie freshman.

He looks back out at the court, up at the clock, back down to the floor, shakes his head, and finally says, “Martin, get in there.”

The Last Option

I had this vision as my Principal was explaining to me that I needed to help cover the elementary autistic program for the next hour. I immediately thought that I have had no formal training in working with this population. And “yes,” I later discovered, I was the last option.

As I silently entered the classroom, the paraprofessionals were hard at work, working with the five students in the room. The two looked at me as if they already knew why I was there, but what they did not know was that I was also present to learn from them.

The activity I joined them in was finger painting. I sat at the table, and all the kids looked at me but then continued to work.

One young man who I sat next to leaned over, and he immediately started to smell my shirt sleeve.  We will call him Student A.

Keen Sense of Smell

One of the paraprofessionals told me that Student A has a strong sense of smell, and that is how he gets acquainted with you. As we continued to work, Student A kept me pretty busy and entertained. He spoke in a very monotone, very loud, unexpectedly verbal outburst.

He would ask me questions. And at times, I would strain to hear as we finger-painted. I would answer his questions the best I could in my effort to communicate with him. While working with him, he continued to lean over and smell me to help satisfy his keen sense of smell.

The hour flew by. I was able to learn not only from Student A but also through my observations of the paraprofessionals who were in the classroom with me and how they interacted with and managed the students in a very busy classroom.

Understanding and Respect

As I sat in the classroom observing and working with Student A, I could feel my heart sink and a sense of sadness within me. I tried really hard to keep my eyes from tearing as I began to think how grateful I was to have healthy kids.

I was able to gain a better respect for what the parents of special needs kids experience and for the teachers and support staff who work with kids with special needs on a daily basis.

After clean-up, the speech therapist arrived in the classroom with the working dog and the kids gravitated toward them both.

I was relieved of my duty in the classroom, but I stayed to watch a session the therapist did with the students. It was amazing watching her, the dog, and the way the students interacted with both of them as they worked on their speech either verbally or by communicating with their picture books.

I’ll Be Back

After the session, I thanked the paraprofessionals for the lessons learned and for allowing me to be an active part of the classroom. Right before I was about to exit, Student A came over to us and tugged on my shirt. I leaned down to hear what he wanted. It was hard for me to understand, and the paraprofessional did sign language with Student A. He then replied back in sign language.

He had asked if I would be back. I nodded my head yes. He then smelled me one last time and went back to play with the others.

The Best Plans

Finally, I’m sure there will be several lesson plans I will develop and present in the future. My short experience in this special needs classroom room showed me that even when leaders are faced with the unknown, taking on the challenge can be rewarding.

Sometimes, the best plans are not the ones scripted out, but the ones you experience.

I have a good feeling I will continue to learn a lot about myself, my new work surroundings, and leadership from a young seven-year-old autistic boy.

How Do You Learn Effective Leadership?

If you have ideas about effective leadership that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Greg Martin
Greg Martin
Greg works for Sedgwick County Department of Corrections and owns Martin Leadership & Management Development. He is a U.S. Army veteran & holds a MS in Leadership and Management from Friends University.
  • Joe Compton says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, Greg! Experiences like the one you described are powerful and can teach us so much about ourselves and others. Thanks for sharing the story.

  • David McCuistion says:

    Greg, I know how you feel. My greatest leadership and personal rewards, intrinsic rewards, came from my JROTC teaching experiences. High praise to you and best of luck on your new journey,

  • Greg Martin says:

    Joe and David – Thank you for your feedback and kind words. Lead Well.

  • Puneet Trehan says:

    Thank you for sharing such a “Moving” experience.

    It’s a given that we have five senses to work with- Our Comfort Level Causes Us to Define Our Limits- We can all stretch our limits

  • Sanjayr Rakecha says:

    Great Story. Thanks for Sharing

  • Greg Martin says:

    Puneet & Sanjayr,

    Thanks you and your welcome.


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