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What Good Teachers Know About Teaching Kids on the Autism Spectrum

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When teachers view the behavior of children on the autism spectrum through typical lenses, their view is always distorted.

Educators must know autism inside and out to have the clarity that allows them to teach children the way they learn, to interpret what the child is communicating and to respond appropriately.

We must start insisting that only those teachers with the right approach, the heart, the creativity and the training are working with our vulnerable children. We wouldn’t let a foot doctor perform open-heart surgery. Why are we so complacent in allowing educators with no understanding of autistic learners to be responsible for their education?

To be clear, I do not have a teaching degree, but in my work as an autism consultant for a non-profit agency, I do a lot of teaching. I teach parents and professionals about ASD. I do this in workshops, and more recently, by delivering  a 30-hour course on ASD offered by our government to eligible parents of autistic children. The majority of my work involves working with parents to help them address challenges within the school system. In that role, I often observe classroom interactions, meet with school teams and examine documentation to make recommendations for changes in school support. I am also autistic.

I created this “wishlist” of teaching practices after a flurry of heart wrenching school-based situations were brought to my attention. I share these strategies with teachers and families I support, and have used them with my own autistic child.

These is what good teachers should know about teaching kids on the autism spectrum:

1. The most important work I will ever do with my students on the spectrum is to build trust. Without that, they may be too anxious to do what I ask. I make every effort to win them over. I know way more about Minecraft, Star Wars and Anime than any of my colleagues!

2. I make it clear to all of the students in my class that fair does not mean equal. I am fair by giving every student what they need to be successful.

3. Too many teachers say they cannot give a child support because it would be unfair to the other kids in the class. Teachers who can’t easily explain the extra help an autistic child needs to their other students should ask how it’s done and then get on with providing those essential supports.

4. I’ll just tell parents what I have observed from their child and keep all editorial comments out my communication with them –unless it’s to say their kid is awesome!

5. I never label a student’s behavior “naughty,” “difficult,” “oppositional” or “rude.” I don’t know the cause of the behavior I’m seeing because I am not an autism expert. I’ll ask the experts — starting with the student, followed by the parents. If they can’t help, I will call in my school team.

6. I acknowledge the parents who have been raising their autistic kids know them better than I do.

7. I’m a teacher, not a psychiatrist, so I’ll never tell you to consider medication for your child.

8. I find opportunities to raise the child’s stature in the classroom and the school. Is he great at magic? Let’s do a magic show! Is he an expert on dinosaurs? Let’s create an incredible dinosaur station and he can be the curator! He’s a great reader? Let him read stories out loud for the class.

9. The autism-related difficulties are not parenting issues. Autism is a pervasive development disorder, and that means my autistic students may have some differences in every area of functioning across their lifespan.

10. Autistic students need patience and understanding. I’m giving that.

11. Autistic students need to be taught in the way that they learn. I’m doing that.

12.  Parents raising that child are on duty 24/7. I respect their love and devotion.

13. If the child is having a difficult time, I don’t insinuate or suggest there are problems in the home. Parents need my understanding and support, not my sideways glances and accusations. It takes village . . .

14. These kids are corrected all day long in every setting by everyone. I do not contribute to that assault on their psyche. I celebrate the successes and the attempts. I teach to the gaps in understanding and skill without directly pointing out mistakes. I demonstrate. I model. We practice until they get it.

15. I know that a lifetime of being corrected makes a student afraid to take a risk. I create safe and supportive environments where risk-taking is applauded. I let my students know that I get nervous taking chances, too!

16. I know that students who have suffered teasing, bullying or social alienation often have anxiety — sometimes complex-PTSD. It’s a kind of anxiety you get from repeated social injury when you feel there is no escape.

17. Speaking of bullying — not in my classroom. Not on my watch. And if my autistic student tells me they are being bullied, I believe them and I act on their information.

18. If administration is not responding appropriately to incidents of bullying, I am not afraid to speak up. I am not afraid to tell my administration that we need to do more and do it now. I do not let common sense take a back seat to school protocol when my students are being hurt.

19. My autistic students are tired — of course they are! A number of them have sleep disorders. They can’t settle down until late into the night. The diurnal rhythms of these students can be off by three to four hours, so they may be awake until well past midnight. If they are awake so late, it is no wonder they can be very groggy in the morning. Mornings can be tough on my students, so I watch what I expect of them first thing in the day. In the a.m., I prepare lesson plans with preferred and alerting activities for those who need the extra time to be fully awake.

20. I know what slow processing speed means for each of my autistic students. I know that rushing a kid who takes 10 seconds to process what I’ve said will literally slow him down and potentially make him anxious. There’s no rushing the autistic students in my class. Not allowed.

21. Autistic students may need help with organizing, prioritizing, managing their emotions, being flexible in their thinking, starting their work, coming up with ideas, remembering, and managing their time. These are brain-based differences. This is executive dysfunction. If I want my student to learn these things, I have to teach, not chastise and dictate what they need to do, but demonstrate the value of these skills so my student wants to master them.

22. I read books on executive functioning so I understand it, and search for creative ways to compensate for struggles my autistic students may have in this area.

23. I ask his special education teacher to create IEP goals for these skills and then we come up with a plan to teach him.

24. I will never intentionally damage their fragile self-esteem. I approach every interaction in consideration of their dignity. I’m going to honor the courage they display to get through difficult days.

25. No shaming allowed! I know stimming helps these students focus, regulate and/or manage anxiety. Never, ever, ever would I shame or humiliate them by calling attention to their stim and insist they stop because they “look weird,” “are bothering their classmates,” or “distracting staff.” If something needs a conversation, we do it privately with great attention to the student’s dignity.

26. If a student believes in themselves, they can do anything. I’m going to create opportunities for them to see their potential, and for peers to see it, too.

27. If an autistic student is struggling to produce written work, I don’t wait for an “expert” to tell me he needs a laptop. He just does. I find one for him.

28. I am politely and professionally relentless about getting my autistic students the supports they need to be happy and successful. Even when my efforts are greeted with eye rolls, an emphatic “No way,” from my administration, or the defeating silence of indifference — I don’t stop. Right is right.

29. I consider the reality of anxiety. All roads can lead there: bullying, sensory overload, social alienation, slow processing speed, volumes of homework that seem impossible to keep up with. I keep that in mind when I am creating lessons and assignments for my autistic students.

30. I advocate for the help I need in the classroom to give my students what they need.

31. When I am introducing a project or an essay, I start by showing models of finished assignments to the whole class. This benefits everyone — especially my autistic students.

32. I don’t make my autistic students spend so much time struggling to achieve “average” in the topics that are incredibly difficult for them that they lose their edge in the subject in which they could be outstanding. It is my job and my privilege to help them be great at something and to believe in themselves.

33. My autistic students don’t need to look at me in order to pay attention to the lesson. In fact, looking away and doodling may be how they can pay attention. I know they can look at me or they can listen to me, but not both. I choose to honor their sensory needs.

34. Parents and other professionals put a lot of effort into crafting an Individual Education Plan that helps me understand how my students learn and what they need in my class. I appreciate their efforts and I read and understand the IEP — or I get help to understand it. Following the IEP is really helpful. I do it.

35. There are several professional resources available to teachers, and I can request they are provided to help me to help my autistic students. I don’t have to know everything.

36. It’s hard for children to learn from teachers they do not like. If they like their teacher, they’ll have a good year. If they don’t, they won’t. How I treat my student determines if they like her or not.

37. I teach my autistic students that we all need a Plan B. If I want to teach my autistic students to be less rigid in their thinking, I need to model that. I want them to be more flexible, so I bend. We have our schedules and our routines, but if circumstances dictate that change is needed in the moment, we go with it. Changes are always explained fully and with as much notice as possible. If I know that a change is going to upset my autistic student (frigid temperatures mean indoor recess, for example), I tell my autistic student privately so that he can respond without an audience. Together, we come up with our Plan B for the unexpected change.

38. There is no place for teachers who yell when you are trying to educate children on the spectrum. I do not raise my voice. Teachers who yell should never be asked to teach autistic children.

39. My autistic students have empathy — lots of it. Your cat died? He told you a joke to make you laugh because you look sad — not because he is cold and heartless. He may not know how to respond to what he sees or feels. That’s why it’s really important to create social/emotional development IEP goals that can teach my autistic students what to do in these situations. What I don’t do is chastise or humiliate them for responding in ways that others feel are inappropriate. If there’s a clear gap in the child’s understanding, it means now we know what we need to teach.

40. Being verbal doesn’t mean my ASD students know how to communicate. I know that autism is a communication disorder, and I make an effort to find out what that means to each of my autistic students. Just because they are precociously verbal does not mean they can find the words to say what they need, express what they are feeling or understand all I am asking.

41. Many autistic students must be taught that 93 percent of communication that is nonverbal: facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, context. I work with the experts in the board to develop a program to teach these skills that are so important in social success.

42. I check in for comprehension, not by asking, “Do you know what to do?” But by saying, “Tell me how you’re going to answer that question, Bobby.” And if Bobby is on the wrong track, I don’t tell him he’s wrong. I praise him for his effort and keep discussing until he understands.

43. Many people expect nothing of nonverbal autistic students (though many are bright) and too much of our highly verbal autistic students. I will work to understand the strengths and needs of everyone who sits at a desk in my classroom.

44. I model for my autistic student that everyone makes mistakes. I will make mistakes. When I do, I will apologize to my class or to the individual students I have affected.

45. “No” can be a trigger for many students on the spectrum. I find a way to make students feel understood, and I work hard to find a way to say, “Yes.” “Yes, Johnny. You want to play with the Lego. I will let you do that. First, let’s finish your math, then you’ll play Lego.” Finding another way to say no’ is not ‘giving in’ to bad behavior. It is being mindful that this student feels less anxious when he or she has some semblance of control over the day, or when engaged in activities they feel comfortable and competent in doing. I use first/then visuals and schedules to help the student see when he can do his favorite things.

46. Teaching autistic children is easy if you know autism, and if you carefully review their psycho-educational assessment and occupational therapy assessments. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t really know autism, and don’t understand the implications of those professional assessments. I make the effort to attend all training offered to me and do my own research.

47. Too many teachers don’t want to admit this, but I like it out in the open: I am not an autism expert. I am not an expert in child development. We are experts in delivering curriculum to typically-developing children and teens.

48. Special education teachers are not experts in teaching autistic children. They’ve taken university courses on the theories around educating those with different needs. In most jurisdictions, it is mostly theory, and no hands-on. Special-ed teachers need heart, creativity and an open mind. Many have this. Many don’t. I do not entertain those who don’t try to understand my autistic students.

49. When I hear a colleague misrepresent or misunderstand one of my students, I redouble my efforts to share knowledge with the misinformed staff.

50. I’m aware the ASD student who is a model student may have frightening meltdowns and express extreme anxiety at home related to the school experience. When social, sensory and academic demands become too much to cope with, the student will let it all out where it is safe to do so: with his family in his house. I don’t take it personally, but I do want to know how to help make things better. When parents tell me about these meltdowns, I don’t suggest they get family counseling, parent classes, nor do I ask about problems at home. I say this: “I want to help: what do you think I could do differently to make your child happier here?”

51. I’m kind. I like the kid. I’m curious and open-minded and love to call parents to ask for their input when things get challenging. I call the parents to let them know when he has a good day, when he did some good work, when he made my day.

52. Behavior issues are often a result of lack of training, lack of understanding, and lack of communication issues. I don’t call parents to say their child was rocking in his seat, sitting at his desk not doing any work, or looking out the window while I was teaching the class. He has autism. He’ll rock to clam himself. He may not know how to start the work because he forgets the steps or didn’t understand the lesson, and he was looking out the window so he could pay attention to my lecture.

53. I don’t wait for things to fall apart before I ask professional staff for help. If I am in over my head, how difficult must life be for my autistic student? They are counting on me to get them through this school year.

54. Many autistic students do not like to be wrong, to be corrected, to be told they missed something, forgot something, or have to edit their work. I break work into small chunks, and check in for comprehension every step of the way. I teach the value of making mistakes — and make them often for my autistic student to witness. I also let him see me tolerate making a mistake.

55. Educational Assistants and Child and Youth Workers can be wonderful professional colleagues. I appreciate and value their input, ideas and expertise.

Getty image by Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: January 4, 2019
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