Autistic Classmates Offer Beautiful Lessons
Recent headlines about the dramatic increase in the diagnosis of autism in the U.S. got my attention right away as a teacher. The autistic diagnosis ratio has changed from 1 in 88 two years ago, to 1 out of every 68 American children (and their families) in 2014. This made me immediately think that the chances of having one autistic child in every classroom or two was quite good.
The Gift of Social Capital
Ways to accommodate every child’s needs is what good teaching is all about. Children who are on the autistic spectrum and placed in a mainstream classroom can have a wide variety of needs and talents, but often learning how to connect with other children is an important goal for them. It is important for teachers and parents to see this goal for one child as a beautiful opportunity to build a strong community for all. Some call it “Social Capital” and it’s a gift for lifetime health and happiness that everyone can use.
All teachers begin the year with basic and fun activities that help children get to know one another. Some spend more time on it than others, but it has always been my belief that we are too quick to move on to reading and math. We forget to revisit the unwritten social strategies that all children need. We just assume that young children figure out through trial and error on the playground how to read expressions, make friends, negotiate, apologize, console, collaborate, and participate in a group. This is not true for most autistic children, but even the most social savvy children can learn from activities that allow them to practice social thinking.
Ways to Build Social Thinking
Great teachers can create seamless lessons that do more than one thing. It’s pretty much a necessity these days. Under an umbrella of friendship or community, can be a wide assortment of sorting, categorization, graphing, reading, communication, and writing lessons. Here are some of my suggestions:
An autistic child can get “stuck” in choosing the same activities in the same order every day, and become far more interested in playing alone than with a peer. Even young children will notice when someone always plays alone. Rather than ignore it to be polite, it is important to bring it up. Talk as a group about all the things we can teach and learn from each other. Write down things that the children say they are good at and what they want to get better at. Ask who can help whom. Practice different ways to ask for help, invite others, politely decline.
Your autistic student may have very specific daily behavior goals for asking a friend to play, choosing an assortment of activities, or accepting invitations from others. If your students understand this, they can help. If they don’t, they can make assumptions about his lack of friendliness, or even think he is mean or rude. This compounds the problem, and as you know, getting a young child to change their initial perception about a person is not easy.
Your autistic student may need practice associating peoples faces with their names. Take lots of photos! Play games, match name cards to faces, make graphs of favorite colors or interests. Who can name three boys and three girls, think of two people whose names begin with R. Whose name rhymes with tabby (Abby). Ask how many friends have black hair, Star Wars lunch boxes, etc.
Taking photos of different locations and activities and labels can also help students with planning ahead, story telling, and thinking out loud about friends and learning.
Sometimes a conflict between two or more children is witnessed by the whole class. Use it to teach later. The next day, bring it up with the group. Try and lead the discussion toward “why” someone was angry, not what they did. Ask if they have ever been angry, and if they ever hit or yelled at someone. What could be done differently next time. Everyone has made mistakes, but we try to learn from them.
Teachers of young children know that it is important for them to give a gentle reminder when it is time to change gears and do something different. Transitions can be one of the toughest parts of the day for the little ones. For an autistic child, it can ruin their day. Routines are very important, so talk about them, write them down, and follow them as closely as you can. Talk about what to expect tomorrow, who will be doing what, if anyone will be visiting, and the layout the plan for rest of the week if you can.
We often take communication skills for granted, but many young children can benefit from practicing skills like eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, how to have a give and take conversation, and general courtesy. There are different sets of manners for different settings that young children are happy to learn.
Finally, consider that each of us has different tolerances for lighting, textures, sounds, visual stimulation, temperature, being in a crowd, etc. Try to have some choices in your classroom for quiet cozy spots alone and vibrant stimulating spots for interaction, etc. The more choices, the happier.
Embrace the Families
I have no expertise in autism. I have taught children with “autistic tendencies” before, and one thing I have learned well is that the diagnosis of autism affects the entire family. The mother of an autistic child is strong, knowledgeable, but more tender than she lets on. Parents of autistic children are invaluable resources, but also so human. They often feel isolated and consumed with therapy, advocacy and exhaustion. So much so, that they rarely have time to make connections just for fun.
I would like to ask all teachers to give these families a break and approach them before they approach you. They will be able to tell you in detail what their child responds to, what they have tried, and what their child’s goals are, so you can support them. Next, I would like to ask teachers to encourage all parents to reach out to the autistic child’s family with an offer of car pooling, play dates, or just being a friend. Sometimes parents need permission to go outside their social comfort zones too!
If young children (and their teachers and parents) are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to learn how other people might feel, learn to reach out, learn to forgive, learn patience, and learn an appreciation for differences, I would say they are better for it. Autistic classmates can teach all of us these beautiful things!