RACHAEL Cann is an autism specialist and special educator who has focused most of her life on helping children with exceptional abilities.
Cann, 30, told All Woman that at the age of 16 she fell in love with teaching after experiencing other areas she had interest in and realising she didn't like them.
“When I was younger I wanted to do something with animals. I wanted to be a marine biologist then a chef. When I was in high school my mother used to put me in the areas I had interest in. So there was a time I worked in a supermarket stocking shelves and packing bags. I went to a cooking course and worked in a cook shop and realised I hated it,” she said.
“I had a strong Catholic background, so I started teaching Sunday school at 16 and loved it. The summer at age 16 I also started teaching swimming at Rainbow Land Nursery then taught there every summer until maybe age 19 or 20.”
From there, Cann, a past student of Ardenne High, went on to do a diploma in early childhood at Shortwood Teacher's College, moved on to The Mico University where she pursued a Bachelor of Education in Special Needs, then went on to do a Master of Science in Autism and Assessment at Missouri State University.
During this time, Cann worked at Reach Academy alongside Dr Terriann Samuels working with students with special needs, which further sparked a passion in her.
“It was with Dr Samuels that I got my first student and one with special needs — autism. You don't know determination until you work with special needs children. They are so determined. Sometimes we take things for granted like how easy we can transition, pick up a new skill and master it. With these individuals it takes failing, trying, failing again and then finally succeeding and I get to be part of that development,” she said.
For Cann, her numbers eventually grew and she decided she wanted to do more for special needs children locally. But her dreams didn't come without detractors.
“A lot of people said, 'why are you doing it, you don't have enough capital'. Yes, there are challenges but it is a dream. If you're really passionate about something you're going to go for it no matter what the naysayers say. People told me to go abroad but there's so much to do here and I couldn't leave knowing people are here to be helped,” Cann said.
As a result, after a decade teaching, she decided to take a major step and open her own learning centre — iCann HELP Learning Centre — which caters to children up to age 19 with mild to moderate disabilities, depending on their cognitive abilities.
“I have had iCann HELP for one year now. Right now we have 13 kids full time and we are still enrolling. The maximum space is 20 children. Our classes are small in that the maximum is five children to a class so everyone can get individual tailored instruction. Each child is different. Each child has to have an individual education plan with specific goals to work on. But what makes us a bit different is that we have the small classes to attain goals; we don't use para professionals (shadows) here. We don't use them as we are trying to create independence in learners. Some of them are the nannies the child has had from birth and the drawback is that when you depend on them too much, no one else can get the child to do anything. For example, the child I started with, there are things I will get him to do that other aunties won't get him to do easily,” Cann said.
“We want our kids to become independent and fluent in all areas. The classrooms are subject-assigned and every two months or so we switch up the teacher so they show their skills to another individual. We do that because once a class teacher had to change and a child said, 'you're not aunty so and so, I'll do it for aunty so and so'. That was not what we wanted. We want independent learners. We also have individual education plans that the students follow and we also focus on social and communicative goals,” she said.
Cann also gives credit to her staff who makes it possible and tries to develop friendships and social circles for her students.
“You don't see them going out a lot. You see them with their parents but never out with friends. I want to develop relationships with them, go to a movie, pool date, build social circles to get them to communicate effectively with one another,” she said.
In addition, the learning centre utilises animal therapy for the children and Cann also intends to look at bee farming and honey production as a means of giving her students a skill.
Also a certified sexual educator with University of Michigan, Cann also uses this skill to help with the sexual education of special needs children.
“I did my research on masturbation because it is controversial. I remember giving a talk and bringing up the topic and someone said what will happen when their special needs child finds a wife. I said 'if' they find a wife. We want the best for our children but realistically, will they find one? We hope they do but if they don't, what will they do with themselves? Sex releases frustration but imagine how frustrating it can be when they don't know what to do with themselves. We tend to slap them or shame them and without the proper education they can hurt themselves. Rather than turn a blind eye and think nothing will happen, educate people for the times you're not going to be there. Nobody wants to talk about that period for their special needs child but we are all intrinsically sexual beings and it will happen one day, so we have to have the talk,” she shared.
Outside of work, Cann, also a trained lifeguard, volunteers with the Jamaica Autism Support Association and Bellevue Hospital and hopes that the success stories of mental health challenges will be told more frequently to help break the stigma.
Cann, who also enjoys movies, the gym and the likes of Portland, says her philosophy is that life is a great learning adventure and it is never too late to learn anything.