South Charlotte

The job is over, but her work's not done

Kathy Fallin treasures her puzzle pieces.

She loves her puzzle-piece earrings, and she proudly displays a framed, student-made painting with a blue, orange and red background highlighting purple puzzle pieces that don't quite fit in the blue circles.

The painting, a gift from her work family, gets special care as she cleans out her office.

Fallin, 58, has arranged thousands of puzzle pieces - the international symbol of autism.

This week, Fallin will retire from her post as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Exceptional Children Program Specialist for Students with Autism.

Fallin started as a teacher for students with disabilities 36 years ago, at a time when students with autism weren't getting the support they needed.

She's leaving at a time when CMS has an entire Exceptional Children department and three specialists dedicated to educating teachers, principals, parents and "anybody who'll listen," about autism, the developmental disorder that, when treated correctly, doesn't have to hamper success.

Fallin set her sights on teaching as a preteen, but she didn't know what she wanted to teach until she befriended a boy with a disability who lived in her neighborhood. Many of the other children weren't nice to him; they didn't understand him.

"I felt like (children with disabilities) needed a voice and an advocate," Fallin said.

After graduating from Appalachian State University in 1975 with a degree in developmental delays for students, Fallin was hired at Wilkes County High School.

She wanted to "save the world," she says, but she soon found that most administrations didn't fully understand what students with autism needed. Her modular classroom unit, filled with students with moderate to severe autism, didn't have air-conditioning.

On hot days, the room would get to 90 degrees. Fallin complained to the school board about the heat - and she received an air conditioner.

"We have come such a long way from that," Fallin said. People with autism are "going to be part of our communities, at our churches, at the (YMCA). We need to understand."

One in every 150 people has autism, according to the National Autism Association, and it's diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls. There are autistic students in nearly all CMS schools, so Fallin's job involves offering training, materials, books, resources and videos for educators, administrators and parents.

Now 76 percent of CMS students with autism are able to attend traditional classrooms with a standard course of study, said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jane Rhyne, who oversees the Exceptional Children programs.

District-wide, CMS has about 80 self-contained classes for students with moderate-to-severe autism. Unlike Fallin's days in the modular unit, these classes now have six to eight students each.

After a couple years in Wilkes County and a five-year stint in Gaston County, Fallin went to McClintock Middle. She then taught at CMS's Metro School, where Rhyne, her principal at the time, noticed her spark.

Metro School serves about 250 students, ages 3-22, who are cognitively disabled. Many of the students have severe medical and physical needs, and some have multiple disabilities.

While there, Fallin helped raise money for a therapy dog named Daisy, a shaggy mutt that was part border-collie. Daisy was a shelter dog that changed the lives of many autistic students and lived with Fallin.

In the classroom, they strapped a Velcro backpack on Daisy and students put letters and numbers on her back for schoolwork. Daisy understood sign language, and with Daisy and Fallin's help, some children spoke their first words.

While at Metro, Fallin got the Teacher of the Year award from the Arc of NC, an organization that promotes disability issues.

After Rhyne left her principal post to work at the CMS central office, she recruited Fallin as the district's first autism program specialist. Working with UNC Charlotte, Fallin got CMS a number of grants.

"Teachers love her ... and parents of students with autism love her," said Rhyne. "She's such an expert."

But, as Fallin has always taught students with autism, learning to accept change is one of life's most important elements.

It'll take Fallin a while to decompress after years of often 12-hour days, and weekends spent at the office, she said.

When her boss, Val Morgan, talks about Fallin, her eyes get misty. Tears creep into colleague Stacie Levi's eyes when she talks about Fallin's commitment, empathy, compassion and thoughtfulness.

(She never even misses a birthday, Rhyne said.)

"I'm going to miss the kids. I'm going to miss all the adrenaline rush of ... seeing a student be successful, seeing a teacher do something you taught her," Fallin said.

But Fallin isn't finished with this puzzle.

She'll be back volunteering with CMS in February, and she's going to work with churches, banks, hospitals and others to teach them about autism.

"Autism, to me, is the most complicated of all disabilities," Fallin said. "It kind of sucks you in. It's so fascinating that you just want to solve it, you want to know more and more and more to figure it out."