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What good teachers know about teaching kids with autism - a wishlist

By Maxine and Daniel

This is a wishlist of teaching practices. I am not a teacher-I'm an Aspie advocate and champion, writer, parent, grandparent and public speaker who works in the autism field. I do parent-trainings, assist with IEPS, and have the great pleasure of working with many excellent teachers who understand our children or work to find answers if they're stuck. Anyhoo...here you go:

+ 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!

+ I never label a student's behavior naughty, difficult, oppositional, rude. I don't know the cause of the behaviour 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.

+ ...and on that note: those parents who have been raising him for 13 years know him better than I do.

+ I just checked my degree. Yep. I'm a teacher, not a psychiatrist, so I'll never tell you to consider medication for her.

+ 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 a lifespan. They need patience and understanding.
I'm giving that. They need to be taught in the way that they learn. I'm doing that.

+ Parents raising that child are on duty 24/7. The love and devotion takes my breath away.

+ If the child is having a difficult time, I don't insinuate or suggest that there are problems in the home. Those parents I mentioned who are on duty 24/7? They need my understanding and support, not my sideways glances and accusations. It takes village....

+ 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.

+ 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 know that students who have suffered teasing, bullying, or social alienation often have anxiety--Complex-PTSD, actually. It's a kind of anxiety you get from repeated social injury when you feel there is no escape.

+ 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.

+ My autistic students are tired--of course they are! The majority of them have sleep disorders. They can't settle down until late into the night and 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 morning. In the A.M., I prepare lesson plans with preferred and alerting activities for those who need the extra time to be fully awake.

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

+ 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 we can see under a microscope.

This is executive dysfunction.

If I want my student to learn these things, I have to teach him...not chastise and dictate, but demonstrate the value of these skills so he wants to learn. I ask his special education teacher to create IEP goals for these skills and then we come up with a plan to teach him.

+ I will never intentionally damage their fragile self-esteem. I approach every interaction in consideration of their dignity. I understand that they are incredibly brave just to show up every day, and I'm going to honour that courage.

+ No shaming allowed! I know that 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 insisting 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.

+ 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.

+ 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.

+ 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.

+ Anxiety is the beast in autism. 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.

+ I don't 'dumb the work down' because it is easier to modify than accommodate. I advocate for the help I need in the classroom to give the student what she needs.

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

+ I don't make my autistic students spend so much time struggling to be average in the topics that are incredibly difficult for them that they loose their edge in the subject in which they could be outstanding. It is my job and my privilege to help them be great and to believe in themselves.

+ 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 he can pay attention. I know that he can look at me OR he can listen to me, but not both. I choose to honour his sensory needs.

+ Parents and other professionals put a lot of effort into crafting an Individual Education Plan that helps me understand how he learns and what he needs 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.

+ There are several professional resources available to teachers, and I can request that they step in to help me to help my autistic students. I don't have to know everything. I do have to be kind, calm, and caring.

+ 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.

+ There is no place for teachers who yell when you are trying to educate children on the spectrum. I do not raise my voice.

+ My autistic students have empathy--lots of it. The may not know how to respond to what they're feeling, so it's really important to create social/emotional development IEP goals that can teach them what to do in these situations. What I don't do is chastise or humiliate them for responding inappropriately.

+ I make an effort to find out what it means to each of my autistic students to have a communication disorder. 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. 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.


+ Many people expect nothing of non-verbal 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.

+ 'No' is 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."

+ Teaching autistic children is easy if you know autism, and if you carefully review his psycho-educational assessment and occupational therapy assessments. Unfortunately, most 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.

+ I'm aware that 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.

+ I'm kind. I like the kid. I'm curious and open-minded and love to ask parents for advice if things get challenging. Oh--and I ask my board's professional staff for help when I need it.

+ Autistic students do not like to be wrong, to be corrected, to be told they missed something or 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.

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

+ 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. They cannot learn from me if they don't like me. I make every effort to win them over.

This is a wishlist of teaching practices. I am an Aspie advocate, writer, parent, grandparent and public speaker who works in the field. I do parent-trainings, assist with IEPS, and have the great pleasure of working with excellent teachers who understand our children or work to find answers if they're stuck. Only teachers like these should be allowed the privilege of working with our children. The other kind can do harm that can take years to undo.