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Teaching a Child with Autism

Updated on May 14, 2014

What is Autism?

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Something Different

"We knew it before he was three years old", his mum had told me. "There was something different about him. Maybe it was the way he always avoided eye contact. Or the fact that we never saw him smiling. He never used to play with other children. I don't mind, really. I love him more than anything in the world. I just wish he would come to me once and say 'How are you feeling mummy, you look a bit sad' ".

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Lack of emotional responding or The power of a simple "Are you ok?"

But that's not something Adam would ever say spontaneously. Experts call it 'lack of emotional responding'. It means that even if his mum hurts herself badly next to him, he may not even notice. It's not that he wouldn't care; he just cannot recognize expressions of pain, so he doesn't respond to them. It doesn't sound important, but in a moment of weakness a parent who goes above and beyond for his child all his life, longs for an act of care. That's the power of a simple "Are you ok?".

Are teachers prepared?

It is very likely that a teacher will have a child with autism in his/her classroom. The question is, how prepared we are to teach them. When I met Adam, I was confident I had a sound knowledge of special education needs. But the truth is that all the degrees in the world cannot prepare you for the moment you'll have to convince an autistic child to use a different toilet when his regular one is out of order. He will probably wet himself every day until it's fixed.

Why Autism is a spectrum disorder

Adam is among my higher ability pupils. He is exceptional in Maths. My friends joked once about the money he could make playing Blackjack when he'll grow up. How could I convince them that every autistic child is not "Rainman"?

The truth is that autism has a wide variety of symptoms and characteristics. In general, it impedes social interaction and communication skills. But children on the autistic spectrum range from those with extreme developmental disabilities, to those with astonishing abilities. That's something a teacher should never forget.

Signs of Autism

Common signs
that can help a teacher
identify ASD
difficulty making eye contact
 
 
failure to develop peer relationships
(ex. cannot spontaneously start conversations or engage in make- believe play)
 
rigid following of certain routines
(ex. refusing to sit at a different table for lunch)
 
repetitive language
(either immediate - echolalia, or delayed - video tape talk)
 
These characteristics can appear in a variety of combinations.

Autism Awareness

Do you know how to help?
Do you know how to help? | Source

Three simple ways to help pupils with autism adapt in the school setting

Children with autism can have a wide variety of symptoms and characteristics. What they all have in common is that they have a different way of processing the world, compared to their typically developing peers. Some things that others take for granted can be overly complicated and hard to understand for a child with autism. How do you recognize sarcasm? How can you understand what a hand gesture means? Why is it that when you enter a half empty movie theater you shouldn't sit right next to someone, but when you go to a party you should approach people you have never met before and start conversations with them?

Autistic pupils have to face these questions daily. School teachers can help them reduce their anxiety and adapt in the school setting.

#1 Do not use irony or idiomatic expressions

Never use a slightly inappropriate sarcastic "Thank you!". It will just get you a sincere "You are welcome" that will make you laugh your socks off. Laugh your socks off? But... that doesn't mean anything! Oh, and by the way since you thought that these pupils' silly behavior was "very funny", why are they on time out? And the class is definitely going on a school trip tomorrow, because it is impossible to be raining cats and dogs anyway!

PROVIDE CLEAR (AND LITERAL) INFORMATION TO YOUR AUTISTIC PUPILS!

#2 Set a daily routine

You can easily reduce your pupil's anxiety about what's going to happen next, by setting a clear daily routine. It is very easy to make a visual timetable in order to provide them a very explicit structure of the school day. This should include playtime and home time.

Don't forget to remove activities that have finished. Also, you should warn your pupils in advance for any changes that could occur on that day. It could be very frustrating and confusing not to know what's going on; try to protect them from these feeling as much as possible.

An example of a visual timetable

#3 Reward possitive efforts

Everyone likes to be rewarded. Let your pupil know that he has done something good! This reward could be any activity he really likes. Even some obsessive behaviors that he is normally not allowed to engage in. To explain further, another common sign of autism is a type of repetitive body movement: hand flapping, spinning in circles, making sounds or touching their favorite material. Normally they are not allowed these self stimulatory behaviors in a mainstream setting, but "rewarding" them with the permission to do it does not only boost their self esteem (because they view it as a special treat since they have been so good!) but also helps them relax and feel calm.

Raise Autism Awareness

Overall, some simple adjustments to your teaching will really help any children in the autistic spectrum. This list is by no means inclusive, keep reading and sharing ideas! I personally have a long way to go before I can really make a difference in Adam's life. What I always try to remember is that, above all, "he is not a puzzle, he is a child"; and treat him like every other child.

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