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Faces: Ailie watched autism awareness change in 34 years of teaching

Karen Ailie could have changed school districts years ago. She lives in Nisswa, much closer to Brainerd than Pine River, yet she decided to spend all of her 34 years teaching at the same school district before now retiring.

"I like the size," Ailie said of the Pine River-Backus School District. "I like that we get to know everybody. Even now, this seems big compared to what Backus was like."

For Ailie's job, small groups are key. Ailie spent 32 of her 34 years as a special education teacher. When she started in Backus, the groups were even smaller than they are today, even though she covered a larger range of students.

"I can remember in Backus, I was K-12 there," Ailie said. "I remember sitting at a kidney table with a senior on one side of the table and a kindergartner on the other side of the table. I was trying to meet both of their needs and it was kind of wild. You just did what you had to do. Here I have only been K-6 since coming to Pine River."

Like many teachers, Ailie knew she wanted to be a teacher early on. Growing up in Monticello on a hobby farm with a paraprofessional mother, she had a teaching role model growing up. It didn't hurt that she was the oldest of four siblings, so it fell to her to help educate the younger of them. High school affirmed her love of teaching, though, as she had served as a tutor and a Sunday school teacher. Then she got a real vote of confidence.

"There was a teacher in high school, an economics teacher," Ailie said. "He made a comment on something I had written, saying it was college level work. He spurred me that way, and so did our counselor and all the aptitude tests. It all pointed that direction."

Ailie went to Bemidji State University, which specialized in educating teachers at the time. Because there were already many teachers out there, Ailie said she took special education classes just in case. Though she taught elementary classes in 1988 and 1989, she has always favored special education.

"(I loved) the variety. I don't have students that are the same," Ailie said.

A lot has changed in Ailie's field, especially regarding autism, which Ailie came to specialize in over the years.

"For quite a bit of my career I worked with kids with autism," Ailie said. "Then I went back and got my master's, focusing on autism, and then got autism certification from UND (University of North Dakota). I got my master's from Scholastica. We could focus however we wanted to and I focused mine on autism."

Ailie said that over the course of 34 years, the way teachers and parents view the autism spectrum has shifted significantly. At one time, Ailie said people treated the diagnosis almost like a dirty word.

"We had to call it the 'A-word'," Ailie said. "You didn't talk to parents about autism. You talked to them about the 'A-word' because you were afraid you would upset them too much. My first student was like that. Now, it's almost commonplace."

In addition to removing stigma from the diagnosis, Ailie said professionals have since come to understand how much those with autism can differ, how wide the spectrum truly is and what types of strengths those diagnosed with autism truly have. This was part of the reason Ailie chose to specialize in it.

"My first certification was in SLDs (specific learning disabilities)," Ailie said. "Those things kind of are similar. Kids have abilities and disabilities and you focus more on the abilities. That's the same we do with autism. We take the strengths and run with them."

After 34 years of pursuing a passion and fulfilling a rewarding position, Ailie's tenure is coming to a close at the end of the 2016-17 school year. After many years raising her own three children - who all graduated from PR-B - surviving breast cancer and ultimately helping students who need it most, Ailie is ready to take some time for herself. She admits retirement will probably be a bit disorienting, but she has plans to fill the gaps.

"I keep telling people I'm looking for a puppy," Ailie said. "I want something at the house to keep me busy. I also want to volunteer at the hospital. They were so good to me when I went through my treatment."

She and her husband will also travel. Ailie became a grandmother only two months ago, so she intends to spend time with the baby.