According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 68 children are identified on the Autism Spectrum and boys are 4.5 more times likely than girls at a rate of 1 in 42. As educators, this means we will have students with autism in our class and it is our obligation to ensure every child learns, are challenged, and find meaning. As a father of two boys with autism I have been blessed with the insight they have provided me.
Though the saying, “If you meet one child with autism you have met one child with autism” is true, there are some consistencies. Children with autism are:
They are these and so much more. They simply need understanding and patience. When provided this they will thrive in any class.
Ask Questions and Allow Choice
When it comes to the uniqueness of children with autism no one knows how to meet their needs better than they do. Some prefer to avoid group work while others thrive in it. Some hate loud noises while others get a kick out of them. Some expect structure and routine while others enjoy a bit of spontaneity. The only one who has a real idea as to what he or she likes and dislikes is the child.
I recommend talking with the child. Find out what he/she prefers. Allow the child to dictate how learning is acquired and respect the child.
Now, this does not mean that we avoid all of the child’s discomforts. As a matter of fact, if we want all children to learn we must challenge them outside of their comfort zone. What it means is we use scaffolding to get these children there.
Take group work for example. If a child doesn’t like working in groups start off small. Begin with table or elbow partner talks and then allow them to work independently. When it comes time for group projects, talk with the child in advance. Explain to them why group work and collaboration is important and then offer choice. If the student wants to work alone, allow it but tell the student that the goal is to eventually work in a group. Build trust with the child. This will go a long way.
Allow For Breaks
We all get overwhelmed and just need a break from tiny to time. I know that I often sit back at my desk and do nothing, play a game on my phone, or take a walk during my prep period because I am mentally exhausted from my day. Everyone gets to this point. We all need mental breaks from the stressful day.
Children with autism are no different. They need mental breaks as well. They, however, may need them a little more often. When my oldest gets over stimulated he will pretend he is going to the bathroom and takes a short walk. During this time he relieves his anxiety, and when he feels better he returns to class ready to work. I had a student few years ago who, from time to time, would walk around the class or he would stand and do his work on a clipboard. It wasn’t a big deal and it wasn’t disruptive.
There is something about walking around or rocking back and forth that relieves stress. Give these students the opportunity to do this. It will help them to learn and will show that you value them as a person.
Children with autism want to lean and they want to fit in. As teachers we model what we expect of our students. If we promote diversity, then provide differentiation. If we want to teach understanding, demonstrate flexibility. If we care about learning, allow students to make choices and have a voice in what and how they learn.
Like every child out there, students with autism want to learn and be recognized for who they are. They want to take on challenges and express their interests and ideas. They just need teachers to be creative and caring and provide opportunities for them to be successful.
It is not a matter of “if” we have students with autism in our class. We will have them and it is our obligation to teach all of our students.