Friday, June 1, 2012

Teaching Kiddos With Autism

I now have five teaching days left!  My journey this school year has been unlike any other.  Yesterday, I sat in on Jeffrey's IEP meeting.  IEP stands for Individual Education Plan.  We do these plans for children who qualify for special ed services.  Since Jeffrey has autism spectrum disorder and qualifies for speech services, a special ed team of about eight of us meet a few times a year to review and reevaluate his plan.   The highlight of the meeting was seeing how happy Jeffrey's mom was after all of us detailed what a successful school year he's had. I think at one point she actually threw her arms in the air and cheered!   Rarely do teachers say this, but I thoroughly enjoyed this meeting.  He's truly come farther than any of us expected! 

Nearly every year I've been a teacher, I've had a child in my classroom who was considered on the spectrum.  Being on the spectrum refers to children who have one or more of a group of disorders that have impacted brain development.  The most commonly known disorders on the spectrum are Asperger syndrome and autistic disorder.  Just to put the reach of autism spectrum disorder in perspective, it is now believed that 1 out of 88 American children has an autism spectrum disorder.  It is more common among boys as 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are believed to be on the spectrum.  For more information, or to learn more about autism spectrum disorders, please visit Autism Speaks.

What does this mean for teachers, students, and anyone else involved in education?  It means we need to change our current state of thinking and put words into action.
  • Know and believe that nothing is wrong with children with autism.  Their brains just work differently than other children's brains.
  • Since these children's brains work differently, we cannot expect them to "get better"  or grow out of it.  Rather, we need to look at our teaching and make changes.

Here are just a few things I've learned when working with kiddos with autism:
  • Communication between home and school:  The most important key to working with a student with autism is to keep the parent/teacher communication open, honest, and consistent.  Find a system that works for you and your time constraints.  I've found email and  brief after school conversations every couple weeks to be effective.  I know others who've used a back and forth communication journal between home and school.  Teachers, if you find a parent asks for more time than you can give, be honest in a caring way.  Try to set up a realistic communication system with that parent.  Parents, if you find a teacher, specialist, or school is not giving you the time you need to be heard, be honest in a productive way.  Ask to set up a predictable and dependable system of communication.
  • Be predictable:  Children with autism typically have a difficult time with unpredictable schedules, erratic transitions, and any type of uncertainty.  
    1. Post your daily schedule on the board in the same place everyday.  Make sure your student with autism can clearly see it from his or her desk.
    2. If there is a schedule change or irregularity, give warning or notice if possible.
    3. Give a five-minute and two-minute warning before each transition.
  • Work closely with specialists:  If I tried to do everything on my own this school year, I would have failed.   I frequently sought advice from the specialists at school.  I found the behavior specialist to be particularly helpful.  You may also need to consult your resource specialist, speech therapist, school psychologist, principal, and past teachers.  Ask for help if you need it.
  • Make sure communication with your autistic student is clear and direct.  For example, rather than saying, "do you want to sit down now?" to your autistic student, you need to say, "please sit down now."  I remember asking Jeffrey this during the first few weeks of school.  He would always say, "No."  I finally caught on that he truly thought I was asking him a question as opposed to giving him a direction.
  • Do not demand eye contact.   After months of being in the classroom, Jeffrey finally started to make eye contact when talking to me.  Keep in mind, this is still prompted each time.  Eye contact is not natural or easy for children with autism.  Please do not expect or demand it.
  • Know that the child is always taking things in.  When I gave direct instruction or was teaching a lesson, Jeffrey would often look around, fiddle with his seat cushion, or get up and pace in the back of the classroom.  At first, I thought he was being defiant.  I was wrong.  This is not defiance!  This is how a child with autism needs to act to either take in or block out sensory input.  Please allow it to happen.  While Jeffrey was doing these things, he was still taking in what I was saying.  His work proved it.  While he often had to be prompted to start and continue working, he showed that he knew and understood the content time after time.
  • Every child is different.   As stated earlier, I have worked with many kids who are on the autism spectrum.  Each one has been different.  Jeffrey was my first student with autism who was serviced by a full time one to one aide.  My experiences with Jeffrey may be completely different than another teacher's experiences his or her students.  

Just keep in mind that every child is different and every child deserves the same level of education, respect, and love regardless of perceived ability.

Open house a couple weeks ago.  All students shared their successes with family.

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I'd love to hear your comments!
-Christina

 
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