A Personal Guide to Teaching Autistic Students
Autism is a spectrum disorder that will be encountered in many classrooms, where or not a diagnosis has been administered and an IEP drawn up. Kindergarten teachers often face the most difficulty because of the fact that not all children are accurately tested before the age of 5 or 6. In my personal experience during field placements, teachers I worked with often knew who might have a possible diagnosis but mentioned that school testing was not done until first or second grade. Considering the noise made in the United States about early testing of Autism, as well as the latest research confirming the need for early intervention, I find this late response by many schools to be deplorable. In Australia, children as young as 12 months are now diagnosed, ensuring the best of care is provided from very early on, to ensure maximum communication and social skills are attained during the child's lifetime.
Teaching an Autistic Child
Teaching an autistic child is no different than teaching a neurotypical child. Each individual has a unique thought process, peculiarities, stereotypes to counter, and fine lines we should not cross. Each child should be taught according to his or her particular strengths, using as many methods as possible to ensure maximal result. Teachers nowadays are taught to teach the individual, not the whole. Each child's progress matters. Paper and pencil testing is only done for grading purposes that boards and parents wish to see. The true test is tougher, but harder to gauge the results. It requires a teacher to understand how far a student has come, how fast he/she can catch up with the rest of them, and how much of the information crammed into those little heads has actually been retained.
According to a study of late referenced in a previous article, autistic children learn best by observation as opposed to being left to their own devices and asked to use the method of trial and error. This is a no-brainer for a teacher like me who is very visual in her learning. If I see a demonstration, it's hard for me to forget it. If you tell me about something, I may not remember it. Seeing an action done allows for my mind to process what is being said. I mimick better than I discover when left to my own devices, unless it has to do with technology. As such, it's quite understandable that autistic children would require a demonstration to observe while a concept is presented and explained.
Tips to Teaching an Autistic Child
My first tip is always that a teacher should know his/her students like the back of one's hand. This means that if a child is said to have any peculiarities or disorders, it should be noted, researched and understood as well as possible. This will allow you to teach the child most effectively.
An autistic child may find multiple things in a classroom distracting, from the color of the walls to the scratching of a pencil on paper, to the noise of a truck passing outside the window. Academically, high-functioning individuals are very capable and are thus included in the classroom atmosphere. Do not feel this to be daunting.
It would be a good idea to ensure that all teachers follow a similar pattern of addressing the children or have very similar rules. This would allow for safety and less confusion on the part of all students, not just those on the spectrum.
Subtle sarcasm and jokes might not exactly be understood either, so a teacher should ensure her words are clear and too the point. Approaching the student afterwards and ensuring there is no misunderstanding might also be a great idea.
I have found that a well managed classroom with minimal chaos is best learning environment for an autistic child. Presenting the day's agenda reduces confusion, allowing a student to get up and move to a quiet corner prevents outbursts, and having all material handy, just in case something is damaged or lost, is a lifesaver. All students benefit from a classroom that has been tailored to suit the needs of their autistic peers, meaning that a teacher's job is made simpler over time and increased understanding of the disorder.
A DVD has been produced by the Organization for Autism Research (OAR) in collaboration with Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools, and made possible by grants from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation and the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. The four-part series is available on Youtube for teachers to educate themselves with and gain a better understanding of their classroom dynamics.