Mostly when we hear about the era of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, and counterculture “hippies” are some of the first things to come to mind. However, these were not the only significant events of this time period. Autism awareness has come a long way in fifty years, but back in the 1960s, the attitudes toward psychological disorders and other forms of mental disability were largely unaccepting and misconceived. For example, it was not uncommon for mothers to remove their own children from their homes and place them into institutions. This issue of how to accommodate and accept children with autism was especially prevalent in public schools, as noted by Walter Johnson alumn Jamey Wolff.
“I first worked as a teacher, and I was really turned off by the way special education was run at the time [before programs such as IEPs and 504 plans],” Wolff said. “Any kid who ‘fit in the bowl’ was placed in any classroom…I knew something was really wrong.”
The inefficient and misguided way in which special education was run helped lead Wolff to her future career.
“When I moved to Woodstock Shore, I missed teaching so I worked with another woman and decided to start a school our way. [Some main goals of our] were to educate kids in the mainstream without any scaffolding.”
Of course, it takes a while for a newly established educational facility to gain popularity, so Wolff started out by taking children into the school for free with parent’s consent. Though it proved to be a very challenging feat, it was approved to be a public school after two years.
Despite the difficulties of founding a specialized school in that time period, Wolff experienced great success.
“Quickly, the school doubled in size. It doubled in size every year for ten years,” Wolff recalled.
It has been a very rewarding career for Wolff to work alongside children with special needs.
“Everyone with autism is different; I never get bored, especially with children,” she said.
Wolff’s experience in the field doesn’t end at founding a school, however. In addition, she directed a film focusing on three young adults–a middle schooler, a higher schooler and a college student–all with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high functioning autism. This documentary-style film, titled “The Asperger’s Difference”, highlights the complicated lives of adolescents dealing with their diagnoses, along with handling everyday teenage issues. The documentary even presents the positive side of having Asperger’s, and the unique and valuable intellectual presence each individual brings to the world.
It can be easy to forget that Wolff, with all her accomplishments in the autism field, in fact graduated from Walter Johnson High School back in 1966.
“I used to live in Ashburton. I walked to WJ everyday,” Wolff said. “Back in high school, I was always interested in psychology, but I wasn’t at all clear about what I wanted to do [in the future.] My vision was still forming.”
Wolff has as few things that she remembers from her high school experience here at WJ.
“There were a lot of stereotypes. I had a hard time with this because I didn’t really fit into any particular stereotype; I was an Honors society kind of kid.”
Of course, the typical high school experience was affected by the “flower power” counterculture movements of the early to mid ‘60s.
“I remember listening to my first Bob Dylan record in my friend’s rec room–it was considered very alternative. [Much of the 1960s] were about getting rid of the restrictions of the 1950s.”
Moreover, Wolff has her share of wonderful high school memories.
“One of my favorite memories was how I got mononucleosis my senior year. Ironically, I ended up missing a bunch of my senior year, and I made a bunch of crepe flowers for the prom committee. I remember being sick and crying about making paper flowers in my bed,” Wolff says.
Overall, a WJ education is what you make of it, and Jamey Wolff certainly has used the tools that the Walter Johnson community helped to provide in order to prepare her for an impactful career in autism advocacy.