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8 Lessons I've Learned From Teaching Autistic Children

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My sister is a certified psychologist at a study center for autistic children. Inviting me to volunteer there, she didn’t think I could spend a large portion of my working hours with her 14-year-old students. But I learned so much. Tons of misinformation and myths about people with disabilities, including autism, prevent many from direct interaction and efforts to understand these kids.

But despite mental differences and some difficulties in socialization, almost all autistic children have positive development dynamics with age. Their ability to communicate with their network increases and their self-sufficiency skills improve. Much depends on their school at this time, as the social environment becomes a necessary stimulus for these kids’ development.

For teachers, it can be a big challenge to master the skills of communicating with autistic people. I noticed that some colleagues had a general idea of what autism looked like, and they tried hard to frame up teaching techniques accordingly. But yet, something went wrong.

Here are some of those lessons I’d like to share:

1. Don’t try to make an autistic kid “normal.”

Remember that any attempt to redesign a person’s identity increases their anxiety. It is essential to abandon normalizing “therapies” or “traditional education” based on making the child comfortable for adults. Learn to accept your child as he or she is.

2. Please don’t force them to communicate.

It will only increase anxiety and mistrust of you. Help an autistic student communicate with people they want to talk to or make friends with. Accept a child’s reluctance to make friends, because nobody has to be friends with anyone if they don’t want to be. Take your student’s communication problems seriously, even if they seem strange to you.

3. Stop teaching them so-called “optional” skills if they don’t want to learn them.

By optional, I mean skills a person can entirely live without. For example, the ability to play, engage in small talk, make up a bed, write personal essays or maintain eye contact. Extra learning workload increases anxiety and takes strengths away.

Analyze the culture in which your mentee participates, and separate the critical skills from those taught to children simply because “that’s common in society.” Teach basic communication through speech if possible, the ability to seek medical help, count money and navigate the city.

4. Always assume they understand everything you say in their presence.

I once witnessed a teacher and parents discussing the child as if she wasn’t there. That’s not cool, especially because most autistic kids can understand everything you say, even if they have no way to express themselves.

5. Treat them according to their age.

Some adult people with autism may look younger than their age, and the same goes for teenagers. I often notice that people talk to 14- or 15-year-old autistic teens as if they are 4 or 5 years old. That’s not OK.

They want you to treat them as intelligent people, which is what they are. If you think you need to talk to a child “like a little one” to make him understand you, please don’t. Try music, dance, sign language, communication by images, sports, writing and so on instead.

Building communication methods for autistic children often requires a systematic effort. The very process of organizing a communicative action may need constant help from others through encouragement, holding a kid’s hand, etc. This time-consuming but crucial work allows autistic kids to establish contact with other people. And it provides an opportunity for the child and family to reconstruct their relationships.

Given that:

6. Don’t limit their access to alternative communication.

Please don’t require a child to use only spoken language. Remember: By restricting communication, you can increase their anxiety level by far. The use of alternative communication not only allows a kid with speech problems to express themselves but also promotes speech development. Accept the fact that some autistic people will spend their whole lives communicating only through alternative communication. Behavior is also communication, so behavior protest is just as important as verbal “no.”

7. Stay calm during the “worst” behavior.

Autistic kids are often well-organized in individual classes but may struggle immensely in larger classrooms. They may find it challenging to sit at a desk unless they can get up and walk around in the class during lessons. They may seem slow, and may not respond immediately or perform the task when it is necessary. They may struggle to pay attention and have behavioral issues or meltdowns.

All this requires exceptional patience and further communication as well as psychological skills from a teacher. Given that kids with autism need extra time to process language and may experience difficulties with motor skills, a teacher shouldn’t push them or yell at them. Simple language, short sentences, going step-by-step, positive reinforcement – that’s what works. Unfortunately, some teachers can’t hold this tactic, raising their voice and, as a result, their mentees’ anxiety level.

8. Think of an individual, not autism.

Instead of describing a kid as, “Jimmy is a low-functioning autistic child,” try something like, “Jimmy is an autistic boy with a low level of expressive but high level of receptive communication, who likes spinning around and loves dogs.” Functioning labels are harmful and inaccurate.

Autistic kids aren’t scary or charmless. They are just different. As teachers, we need to love our autistic students like we’d love any other child in a classroom. We can help them see what they can do and who they can become. We can teach them to dream!

Image via Unsplash.

Originally published: May 3, 2021
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