Autism goes to school: Tips for teachers

There is so much misinformation and so many misperceptions out there about people with disabilities, and that includes autism.  I’ve read some things lately, comments by teachers or people who will teach, that have sent me reeling.  In typical Lydia fashion, I will write a Ten Things in an attempt to dispel these myths about people like me.

1. People with disabilities are not always happy, joyful, eternally childlike, or “perfect angels.”  People with disabilities are humans.  This means that we experience the full range of human emotion, including the uncomfortable ones, such as anger and sadness.  Some of us are generally happy, just like some people without disabilities are generally happy, but others of us are confused, angry, hateful, manipulative, and so on.  Autistic children display inappropriate and unwanted behavior just like typical children do.

2. Always assume we understand everything you’re saying when we’re in your presence, if nothing else, just in case we actually do.  I’ve heard teachers and parents talk together about a child like the child isn’t even there.  Not cool.  Especially with autism, some children understand everything you say but have no means of expression.  Many children have been labeled with ID and are, in fact, brilliant.  For years, parents and teachers talked like the child wasn’t there… when he was entirely there.  He was hurt.  And, unlike a typical child, he has no way to express that hurt.

3. Do everything you can to treat us age appropriately.  I look and act younger than my nearly-24 years, but I like to be treated like the intelligent and sentient being that I am.  If you think you need to use baby talk to reach a child… try music, dance, art, sign, PECS, sports, typing… and so on.

4. Please reduce noise… and not just auditory noise.  There is visual noise, smell noise, thought noise, and tactile noise.  If your room has fluorescent lights, use the blue light covers available on Amazon.  Cover busy carpets.  Tile floors reflect light which makes them hard to walk on.  Everyday school materials (Sharpie, glue, paints) can lead to intense reactions for people with autism.  Never ask more than one question at a time.  This causes thoughts to build up and collide without ever making it out o fmy mouth.  Finally, offer a sensory corner that is dark and quiet, where a child can rock in a chair, lay in a beanbag or under a weighted blanket, or spin.

5. Offer as many means to communication as you can think of!  Verbal communication is not enough.  For me, the ticket is typing.  For other children, it may be art, or athletics, or PECS, or Sign Language, or movement, or a certain kind of music, or design, or building… You may find that you can connect with a child via his preferred method of expression.  I should note here that Facilitated Communication, or FC, is a perfectly viable option for some people.  There have been times that I have become dysregulated to the point that I could not type, and tactile input from someone would have made it possible for me to communicate.  It CAN be done wrong, but when done right, it can open doors.

6. Always assume intelligence.  Did you hear me on that?  ALWAYS assume intelligence.

7. Rather than describing children as, “Jimmy, the low-functioning autistic child,” try describing the child as, “Jimmy, an autistic boy (or a boy with autism, whichever you prefer) who has poor expressive but great receptive communication, likes to spin, and is obsessed with dogs.”  Paint a picture of a person rather than a disability.

8. Routine, routine, routine.  If you lived in a world as confusing as ours can be, you would want as many things to be as predictable as possible.  If something like… opening meeting is always the same at school, and then it changed one day, it would be like you missing your morning cup of coffee, driving a different car on a different route, parking in a different spot, and teaching in a different classroom.  You’d be upset, too!  And the child who has little to no means of communication has no way to say, “Hey, not cool, and I’m really frustrated,” like you would.  They have only their behavior to use.  Visual schedules are HUGE for ASD kids.  I even have them around my apartment, not with pictures but with words.

9. Be careful how much you expect from a child who is not using is “first language.”  As I said, I type.  But you can’t expect the same degree of intelligence and insight to show through when I speak.  Imagine if you had to spend your whole life writing with your nondominant hand.  Well, for me, speaking is like doing just that.  Be patient.  We can learn and we can improve, but we need your belief in us and your patience.

10. Teach us to dream!  Build on our strengths as you work on our weaknesses.  Praise us when we’ve earned your praise, but not for every little move we make, or it becomes meaningless.  We are proud of ourselves when we succeed, so help us to see what we can do and become!

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15 thoughts on “Autism goes to school: Tips for teachers

  1. Question: how do you suggest meshing #6 (always assume intelligence) with making sure you’ve understood what I say? In a recent post you said you are confused more often then you let on. You might be able to sneak by in some social situations like that, but in a learning environment comprehension is important. 🙂

    Also, #2 was a bit confusing at first. Took me a second to realize you meant 2 other people talking with the student in the room. I thought you meant when you were talking to someone with a disability, always assume they understand what’s being said. Maybe add a clarifying, qualifying clause.

    • #6 = intelligence, not understanding/comprehension. = assume potential, assume ability, assume the future… don’t assume this child will never go anywhere or be anything. Not “assume you always know what I’m talking about.”

  2. Confusion has nothing to do with intelligence. Everyone has intelligence and everyone can be confused at times. In a learning environment, you express confusion with questions and explanations of the subject. Comprehension is achieved by how that person would explain themselves. Maybe it would take a more than traditional approach to achieve this. Maybe that is what Lydia is trying to express in question 6. And just because a person may not be able to express via language that they understand, doesn’t mean they don’t understand. My pretty much nonverbal child cannot express in language that he understands by words, but he can express in actions and performance that he does.

    #2….I compare to a mute child. If a child can hear and understand, just because he cannot speak, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what you are saying. That could mean that when someone says hurtful things about that child (which to a typical child we would call this “bullying”) doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings and is like any other human being. Mean and hurtful comments should not be made in the presence of anyone….it’s just not Christianlike.

  3. I would also suggest a heavy quilt as an alternative to the weighted blanket. Due to a negative experience with weighted vests during childhood OT sessions, I have an aversion to specifically weighted accessories.

  4. I liked this post, Lydia.

    Lily has never shown any issues with light, but I know her special ed classroom has the blue covers on the fluorescents and they ARE calming. Even to me. It just felt . . . I don’t know. . . like being in the shade on a nice sunny day. Pleasant.

  5. This is a great post, Lydia…very helpful! I just wrote today about my struggles with not knowing exactly what my daughter understands. It’s hard to know what to focus on when she’s nonverbal and doesn’t give much feedback. I KNOW she understands a lot….so I talk to her like she understands what I’m saying. But sometimes, honestly, I feel kind of lost and like I’m not teaching her what she needs. I don’t want to fail her.

  6. Analogy: Big object connect to other big objects can’t get out the small hole. I think of it as very intelligent complicated thoughts trying to get out a narrow channel. The thoughts are too big and complex and can’t get out because the “hole” of communication is too small. Its because the thoughts are very intelligent together with the “narrow pathway” of communication and the need to say things perfectly accurately that causes the extreme delay or no answer at all. I learned this before my son was born by trying to understand my husband who, while he is not autistic, very often takes a long time to answer a question and/or doesn’t answer at all. Most people (like me) deal with the small hole (if that is their situation) by living with imperfect communication. I’m very sloppy when I communicate — which probably drives him as nutty as it drives me nutty when he doesn’t answer my questions.

  7. Thank you for this post!!! I will repost it! One of my fears with sending my 4 yr old ASD boy to school is that the challenges he has with communication will “allow” people to disregard/not pay attention to his considerable intellegence! If you just spend a little time watching him you realize that he is remarkably perceptive and is ALWAYS paying attention, even when not appearing to be. And boy, does he understand!!

  8. Pingback: Autism goes to school: Tips for teachers – What Is Autism In Children?

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