When Deeqaifrah “Deeqa” Hussein was first told her eldest son, 10, was on the autism spectrum, she was in denial.
“It didn’t matter that I was getting my master’s degree; it didn’t matter that I had been a general educator before,” said Hussein, who at first refused to accept the diagnosis. “I was just a vulnerable mom.”
A mother to seven children, Hussein works full time and is currently in the doctoral program at the University of St. Thomas School of Education. Her strength and commitment – to her family, her work and community – are unquestionable.
When she is passionate about something, she makes it happen. Hussein has made a commitment to special education and learning everything there is to know about autism.
Professor L. Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan remembered Hussein was pregnant with her seventh child while taking one of Brusnahan’s special education classes.
“Deeqa had a baby and came back to class two days later,” Brusnahan said. “She didn’t have any absences. She didn’t miss a beat because she felt that the information she was getting was needed in her Somali community.”
In 2015, Hussein earned her MA in special education from St. Thomas, along with licenses in both autism spectrum disorders and emotional behavioral disorders. She is a student in the educational leadership and learning doctoral program, while working in a highly demanding position in the Minneapolis Public Schools as a districtwide autism and emotional behavior disability itinerant teacher.
But, like many journeys, Hussein’s path wasn’t a straight line. More like a twisty, steep climb. Sometimes she couldn’t even see where she was stepping, but she kept pushing through. Why? Because her love for her children has inspired her to learn how to navigate through the world of autism and help others do the same.
Becoming a changemaker
Along with her eldest son, another of Hussein’s boys – one of her triplets – has been diagnosed with autism. She still remembers what it felt like the first time an interpreter used incorrect terms while translating information about her eldest son to Hussein.
“I was lucky I was an educator and knew the special education terminology,” said Hussein, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and was a general education teacher before switching to special education.
“Just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean they know special education terminology. I saw a need and started advocating. I started knocking on every door – I would tell the special education director [in schools], but no one would listen to me. If your interpreters can’t tell the difference among emotional behavior disorders versus autism versus anxiety, there is no reason for them to be interpreting. There weren’t enough people being trained who knew the terminology.”
After discovering firsthand the critical need for credentialed special educators – especially in her Somali community – Hussein knew she needed to do something. With the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia, Minnesota is lacking when it comes to Somali educators in the public school system. Hussein was determined to change that, and she did.
“I wanted to become the first Somali mother in Minnesota to have an autism license,” she said. “It empowered me. It gave me a validated voice in the community. They saw that I don’t have only one child with autism, I have two boys – out of my seven children – who are medically and educationally diagnosed. It’s a struggle. Raising my kids should have been my full-time job, but I didn’t give myself that option. If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”
Brusnahan – one of Hussein’s professors and her mentor – felt a special kinship with Hussein. She also has a son with autism. When Brusnahan was a young mother in the early ’90s, she had trouble finding information about the developmental disability. One book she read blamed autism on cold, detached mothers. Psychologists who worked with her son didn’t diagnose him correctly because they weren’t familiar with the disability. When she told her friends, some who were unfamiliar with the term thought she said her son was “artistic.”
Brusnahan knew how frustrating it was to run up against obstacles while trying to help her child. She gave up a successful career at Delta Air Lines Inc. and worked to break down barriers. Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree, Brusnahan headed back to school with a mission to learn everything about autism. Eventually she earned her PhD in special education and became a sought-after expert in the field. Among her many accolades and achievements is being named National Autism Professional of the Year by the Autism Society of America in 2012.
“We’ve since moved into the enlightened age, but back then it was the dark ages,” Brusnahan said. “I understood Deeqa’s path of navigation where there wasn’t information available in Somali. That community is experiencing what I and other parents and professionals did several years ago as far as not having resources available in our language. Special education has a language of its own, and it’s not easily interpreted.”
Hussein’s experience inspired Brusnahan to apply for a federal grant to help prepare education
instructors to serve and succeed in diverse communities. The proposal included Hussein’s experiences and it highlighted cultural barriers to accessing special education services in the Somali community, which has a disproportionate number of children diagnosed with autism. The school was awarded $1 million from the Office of Special Education Programs over a five-year period to educate scholars to become licensed special education teachers through St. Thomas’ autism spectrum disorders personnel preparation program. Hussein is a mentor to the cohorts, which have contained African-American, Somali, Hispanic, Hmong and Caucasian students.
Strong bonds with alumni
Kathlene Holmes Campbell, School of Education dean, said Brusnahan is a perfect role model because of the huge impact she’s made in her field and her dedication to students even long after they’ve graduated.
“That’s the ultimate level of professionalism,” Campbell said. “When we think about preparing students, if you have professors who are not only willing to be there during class time or regular office hours but are also willing to meet you in your classroom and continue to have some type of outreach with you months or years later, it just shows a different level of commitment.”
Students Brusnahan taught more than a decade ago still reach out to her for advice, and she doesn’t hesitate to make herself available.
“We have that kind of connection,” Brusnahan said. “I want them to come back. I want them to know us – the professors, the faculty. We do that because it’s St. Thomas.”
As one of Brusnahan’s students, Erin Farrell is a recipient of that dedication. Farrell, who received an MA in special education with a license in autism spectrum disorders from St. Thomas in 2015, is the autism spectrum disorders specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, a role that allows her to work with advocates in the autism community.
“Lynn’s amazing,” said Farrell, who is also a doctoral student at St. Thomas in educational leadership and learning. “She’s brought me into the national circuit; we’ve presented nationally at multiple conferences. She got me involved in leadership at a higher level because she saw something in me – that I was passionate about what I did and dedicated to my work.
“That’s the biggest thing about St. Thomas – having someone who really believes in you, takes you to the next level and helps support you,” Farrell continued. “Lynn never says ‘no.’ She cares. I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who picks up the phone every time I call them or answers every one of my emails. She’ll answer a text anytime. She wants us to all be going out and making a difference. We’re able to do that because of her guidance.”
Brusnahan said she decided to make a difference in the world by educating teachers about autism. “My hope in teaching educators is that I help them to make this world a more accepting, inclusive environment,” she said. “My goal is to influence future educators to build supportive classroom environments in which children can learn in integrated settings and to understand, respect, be sensitive to and grow comfortable with individual differences among their peers. My son’s success in the general education classroom has fueled my thoughts about the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classrooms. I believe very strongly that the inclusion of children with special needs will eventually lead to a society that is more accepting of diversity.”
Being an advocate
Hussein, who is vice president of the Somali Parents Disability Network, said her only choice was dedicating herself to helping her children – their journey is a big part of her journey. She wants to pass on the knowledge she’s acquired to others who need guidance.
“If you don’t advocate for your child, there is no voice,” she said. “Somali parents who have kids with autism are very vulnerable. They’re fighting linguistic barriers, cultural barriers. They might not understand the potential of their kids. I need to make a role model out of my son. I want to show the potential he has. I want him to be an engineer; he loves technology.”
While Hussein is working on her doctoral degree from St. Thomas, she’s also studying to become a board-certified behavioral analyst through the Florida Institute of Technology, so she can help her sons as they move through the school system and beyond. Her educational career path runs in tandem with her eldest son’s developmental milestones.
She feels proud and accomplished, yet there are still plenty more barriers to break down.
“Sometimes when I’m in the schools, people think I’m a parent or an interpreter,” she said. “It can be frustrating to have your competency or position questioned. But for me, that’s just another reason to get more education and have titles and initials attached to my name.”
Among Hussein’s many goals is to be an effective leader in the community and to support Somali parents, especially those who might balk at special education services because they don’t understand them.
“There are barriers and fears that need to be addressed,” Hussein said. “If a parent is saying ‘no’ to special education services, it’s not negligence to me. In our community, it’s stigma and shame that’s associated with special education. Some families decline services to protect their children from the shame and stigma. I was protecting my kid even though I had a general education license, and I was saying, ‘Don’t label him with autism.’ Through educating myself, I was able to speak and advocate and understand. If you see a parent turning away, don’t close the door on them because they’ve already done that for themselves. Give them a second, third, fourth chance.”
Much like Brusnahan has done for her students, Hussein is dedicated to her community – leading free seminars, answering calls, helping to navigate the system and most importantly, listening with an open heart. She shares her story, telling listeners it wasn’t easy for her to accept her eldest son’s autism diagnosis, but once she did, it was liberating.
“I see my son as a unique puzzle, and I’m learning from him constantly,” she said with a smile. “I would not be getting my doctorate, I would have not gotten my master’s degree, I wouldn’t have changed from general to special education without the gift of him. He’s made me a better mother, a better person. I’m not going to be the victim of autism; I’m going to be the changemaker in autism.”
SOLVING THE SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER SHORTAGE
The University of St. Thomas’ School of Education is on the forefront of trying to help fill the special education teacher shortage through multiple program offerings that include special education residencies in local school systems. Along with a Master of Arts in special education, the School of Education is home to six specialized licenses:
• Academic behavioral strategist
• Autism spectrum disorders
• Developmental (intellectual) disabilities
• Early childhood special education
• Emotional behavioral disorders
• Learning disabilities