Guest Post: Educating an autistic child is an opportunity

Many thanks to the author of the wonderful blog Autism and Oughtisms for agreeing to write this spectacular post. Although the post is intended for student teachers it has lessons for everyone within the education system.

I’m going to start this post by telling you to read something else, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the symptoms of autism, and with how to adjust a classroom environment to suit the child’s challenges. It is a brief and useful introduction, well suited to teachers.

My own post is a more personal account of what I would like teachers to be aware of when they find out they will be having an autistic child in their classroom. I draw on personal experience, research, and conversations with other mothers of autistic children, particularly within the New Zealand context.

Image from wikipedia

Parents are a child’s first teacher. When it comes time to hand their five year-old over to a school teacher for the first time, those parents become understandably nervous. That “parent as first teacher” role, and that nervousness of handing your child over, is intensified so much for the parent of an autistic child that many initially consider home-schooling as the only realistic option.

Before an autistic child even enters a classroom, the parent would have gone through an extensive (and often exhausting) process of deciding what classroom setting will best suit their child’s abilities and disabilities. They may have visited a special needs school, a mainstream school, and done their homework into home schooling. By the time that child begins their first class, you can be sure that the parent has not made the decision lightly, and will be evaluating their child’s progress and response to the school situation, from the very first hour.

I can see how that might be intimidating.

When we visited a mainstream school when trying to choose the right setting for our son, I got the strong impressions from both the administrative staff and the prospective teacher that my son – and his challenges – were not welcome. The admin staff were reluctant to meet my eye, asked awkward questions about whether they’d have to change long-standing school policy to suit his needs, and generally hid behind their laptops (typing instead of talking). In the new-entrant class, the teacher looked bored and distracted as she taught the class, and appeared unwilling to make time to talk to us even though that was a central purpose of the visit. We left the classroom early; unimpressed with what we’d seen, and hopeful that the special needs school visit would go better.

My son’s autism affects him in major ways, but he was considered “borderline” when it came to his education options: His team of therapists said he could fit into either a mainstream or special needs setting; the choice was up to us. We were lucky to have that choice; many autistic children simply do not qualify for the government funding required for entry to a special needs school. They are then forced upon schools which are often under-prepared and under-resourced to cope with the child. Some parents who have the choice, still decide on a mainstream school, because of a belief in the benefits of an inclusive education, and worries that a special needs education wouldn’t challenge their child academically or could worsen their child’s condition.

So what do us parents need to see, and need teachers to know, when we come knocking at prospective classroom doors?

Image used under creative commons license

First and foremost, there needs to be a willingness by the teacher to learn: A willingness to learn about the symptoms of autism, how autism affects the child’s learning, and a willingness to take on the challenge of an autistic child. The teacher also needs to be open to the fact that they don’t have all the answers in advance, and be willing to say so; such honest communication is a good beginning point.  If the teacher really thinks they do have all the answers, and wishes to convey that confidence, it is essential that they show they understand that their knowledge must be tailored to the child; this shows the parent that the teacher understands each autistic child is unique, and that they’re aware of what the parent can bring to the table in terms of understanding how best to help the child.

The transition of an autistic child into a new classroom situation – whether new-entrant or not – requires a partnership with the parents. If the teacher gets their help up-front, instead of waiting for the problems to turn up, they will be less likely to end up in what is now considered the classic situation for parents of autistic children in mainstream schools: The parent on-call for addressing problems in person, even to the extent of affecting the parent’s ability to hold down a job. It need not come to that if the parents and teacher work together from the start, and strategise in advance; alerting each other to new issues as they arise and before they get out of hand.

There is nothing inherent in autism as a condition, that limits a child’s intelligence or makes them impossible to teach. My own son for example (who has a diagnosis of classic autism) is clearly intelligent and incredibly eager to learn. There are however aspects of autism that will get in the way of learning; it is after all a developmental delay and learning disability.

The methods and skills teachers learn for handling and helping an autistic child, can be more generally applied to the other children in the class too; potentially making them a more effective all-round teacher. The heightened awareness of aspects of communication – spoken and unspoken – and the problem-solving approach to behavioural and social issues, will not only benefit the rest of the class, they can also enhance the teacher as a person. Many people – parents, teachers, carers – have the opinion that working with autistic children has made them better people along the way. The sense of achievement as you help these children discover the world, and reach and exceed their potential, can be exhilarating and highly rewarding.

But it is a very real challenge. It can be exhausting; mentally, emotionally, and physically. Some teachers do not want to teach these children, and their frustration and anger about being put in such a situation, will be picked up eventually by both the child and the parent. It is all too easy to lose your patience with a child whose behaviour is repetitive and seemingly without purpose; who sticks to rules with a literalness that can be stifling and frustrating, while at the same time seemingly disobedient to the apparently simplest of requests.

Image from Weaver Lake School District

Parents of autistic children are known to shift their children from school to school – despite the huge stress involved with change for a child who craves predictability and certainty – trying to find one that is genuinely welcoming at both an administrative and teaching level. Prior to the parent realising that change is needed, the child can easily become the victim of both student and (unintended) teacher bullying, in a way that seriously affects them and their entire family. Instead of putting the family through this, a teacher should be up-front about their concerns, and be proactive about asking for help. There are charities and government services that can be called upon to educate and assist them; they shouldn’t martyr themselves at the expense of the child.

Something of particular concern for parents is the inability of our children to tell us how their day went. Even when their speech is quite advanced, these children frequently struggle to talk about what happened at school beyond a clinical description of what class followed lunch-time. There needs to be regular and open communication between the school and the family, along with heightened awareness that the child is an easy target who will rarely be able to defend themself or seek help. These problems don’t necessarily get better as the autistic child ages: As social standing and peer relations become more important in the later years, autistic children who were perhaps previously coping, can become isolated and dangerously depressed.

My own family is just at the start of the school journey. For now my son is in his satellite class, but he is responding well and learning so much, that I can foresee him entering a mainstream school years from now. I am hopeful that if/when that day comes, the schooling system will be better prepared than they are currently, to welcome and include him beyond just being a name on their school roll. He has unlimited potential in the hands of the right teacher. He is utterly amazing for achieving what he does in the face of his challenges. When teachers recognise those extra challenges, and realise how much an autistic child can achieve with the right support, they have taken the first steps to making a lot of lives better: The child’s, the child’s family’s, the classmates’, and even their own.

Educating an autistic child is an opportunity; making the most of that opportunity can change lives.

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13 thoughts on “Guest Post: Educating an autistic child is an opportunity

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  1. When my son was very young, I had the feeling that “the really smart ones start off different.” It’s been no walk in the park, he’s had years of Speech and Occupational Therapy–ages 3 to 9, but somehow we’ve made it.

    His grade school Resource teacher said by the time they got to high school, kids like Ben often gave up. Seems what they had to offer, schools didn’t want. Ben has a very high IQ, but was in Special Ed until we started homeschooling in 9th grade because of his LD in Math and his Dysgraphia. This is his senior year, and he is going to Tech School, beginning a degree in Electrical Engineering. He is happy to go to school for the first time in his life. He no longer feels stupid.

    Learning Disabilities (Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Aspergers, Autism, etc.) are very hard on kids. They don’t fit the school mold…and many are thought to be slow, when nothing could be further from the truth. They act out a lot more than kids for whom school is easy. The gifts they have are often not valued in school, and it leads to frustration. Turn them loose a little, break the chains that bind them. Most of the kids I know who are home-schooled would have a label in public school. Help them find their gifts, and you will find their heart and have their undying devotion! Give them a respite from criticism, they really are trying. No kid chooses to fail if they can avoid it. They ARE trying…

    My son’s teachers were very understanding, more patient than I was, but I’m not sure they knew how hard we worked at home to keep up. Finally, about 9th grade we just couldn’t do it anymore. I feel for the kids whose parent’s can’t homeschool, because that is when it gets tough. Be kind. They are fighting a big battle, that in the end will make them stronger, hopefully, rather than break them.

    Autism and Oughtism’s is a very good writer, I have enjoyed the columns written on the blog. You are very wise to look for answers so soon. Thanks for caring.

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and your thoughtful comment. It is very likely that at some point in my career I will have a child with an ASD in my class, in fact there is one next door who I have had contact with.

      I think that this column is so important for future teachers to look beyond the clinical descriptions and start thinking of ASD children as children.

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    2. Thank you for your kind words usethebrain, and for sharing your own experiences and insights. I think it’s so important to hear these stories; to acknowledge them and to reflect on what they mean for the education of our children.

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  2. “There is nothing inherent in autism as a condition, that limits a child’s intelligence or makes them impossible to teach. My own son for example (who has a diagnosis of classic autism) is clearly intelligent and incredibly eager to learn.”

    The author of this comment is generalizing based on her child’s condition. Many children with classic autism, Autistic Disorder (DSM-IV) will also have an intellectual disability.

    See the following authorities:

    1) Canadian Psychological Association Autism Brief to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology November 9, 2006:

    “”Definition: Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, first identified by Kanner in 1943. Decades later, Autism came to be viewed as the more severe of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) which also include Asperger’s Disorder. ASD is a heterogeneous disorder that includes a range of developmental impairments in the areas of social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication as well as restricted or repetitive interests or behaviours.

    Symptoms and Impairments:

    • Cognitive impairment is present in about 80% of persons diagnosed with Autism and general intellectual functioning is most often below average. Persons diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder have average to above average intellectual functioning.””

    2)Department of Health & Human Services – Center for Disease Control Counting Autism NOTE: The CDC surveys indicate the percentages of persons with Intellectual Disability and any Autism Spectrum Disorder including Aspergers.

    “”CDC’s most recent data show that between one in 80 and one in 240 children with an average of one in 110 have an ASD. This is a prevalence of about one percent of children. These results reflect data collected by CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network in multiple communities throughout the U.S. in 2006.

    Estimates are based on health and education records from participating communities, which includes eight percent of the U.S. population of eight year olds. All children in the studies were eight years old because previous research has shown that most children with an ASD have been identified by this age for services….

    Cognitive Functioning (from the pdf version)

    2004

    From 37.9% (Arizona) to 63% (Alabama) (overall average: 43.8 %) of the children identified with an ASD also had an intellectual disability (an IQ ≤70, at the sites that had test results on intellectual ability for at least 75% of the children identified).

    2006

    From 29.3% (Colorado) to 51.2% (South Carolina) (overall average: 41.0 %) of the children identified with an ASD also had an intellectual disability (an IQ ≤70, at the sites that had test reults on intellectual ability for at least 75% of the children identified)””

    3) CDC Autism Expert Dr. Yeargin-Allsop noted that in the 60’s and 70’s … before the DSM changes that added Aspergers (which excludes persons with Intellectual Disabilities) the “vast majority of persons with autism had intellectual disabilities. Not a simple majority … the vast majority:

    CDC Medical Epidemiologist Dr. Marshalynn Yeargin-Allsopp – CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)Interview ”

    Educating the autistic child is an opportunity and a major challenge for the “vast majority” of those with Autistic Disorder and Intellectual Disability. Parents of such children should not be misled by feel good statements that do not accurately reflect the challenges they and their children will face.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, I think it is important for educators to realize that although there is a correlation for children with ASD to have an intellectual impairment, it does not mean all children with ASD will have one. I guess the point of that statement is to look behind the diagnosis and get to know the child.

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    2. Some parents actually know only too well the challenges that their child will face. We also do not want ‘feel good’ statements and strategies – we want actual strategies that will help our child to achieve. Even if our child is intellectually disabled, they deserve appropriate support in the classroom.

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      1. Hi nostromoswife,

        If you click on the link I began with at the start of my post, you will see plenty of very practical strategies to help autistic children to achieve in the classroom. It’s worth a read.

        Also, my “feel good” statement (as Harold designates it) at the end of my post, was an encouragement to teachers (my post is completely aimed at teachers rather than parents), to be positive and proactive when they find themselves having to work with our challenging children. I completely stand by that sentiment. I spent almost all of the post talking about the harsh realities and challenges our children (and consequently families) face. I think it’s incredibly important to point out that it’s not all doom and gloom, and that some of our children have incredible and awe-inspiring potential. And for those without such high potential, they can still be a wonderful addition to the classroom, and a fantastic opportunity for the teacher to learn and grow their own knowledge and skills.

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  3. Hi all,
    I’m going to pull out my blog owner’s hat here and say that I’ve valued the discussion and learned a lot.

    Harold I take on board your comments that many children with Autism also have an ID but that does not mean that they don’t have the capacity to learn which is the point the original post made.

    I understand as with any community there is going to be robust debate, and it seems that the definitions of ASD in the DSM5 are contentious issues within the Autism community. However you need to bear in mind the primary audience of this blog are pre-service teachers.

    This post was written very much as a 101 post on Autism for pre-service teachers who likely don’t know much about the condition but may very well have a child with Autism in their classroom in the coming years (or may have one already).

    I realize one post isn’t going to do justice to the complex nature of Autism which is why if teachers are interested they will visit your respective blogs.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    Stephanie

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