BY SOPHIA SANCHEZ
Autistic kids have a wonderful mind and it’s hard work, nurturing and directing them on the right path. They need help. Be their proud teacher.
Autism or ASD is a very common disorder and statistics show that 1 in 68 children in the US show signs of autism. It can get difficult even for parents to teach their kids and one must appreciate their hard work and patience in handling such situations.
Every student needs a good teacher to guide him / her in the right direction, since autism makes pursuing academics a great challenge. A teacher must be patient and put in a lot of effort to make them understand basic tasks. Here’s a little help on how you can understand and teach autistic children.
Teachers should start off with drawing up a weekly schedule and structuring each day around a routine.
UNDERSTAND THE BEHAVIORAL PATTERN
ASD can make kids highly sensitive to normal day-to-day phenomenon like sounds, smells, colors, sights and touch. They feel uneasy, get panicky and it takes time to comfort them. They sometimes don’t understand what others may think or feel.
One common sign among autistic children is their repetitive stereotypical body movements, like flapping of hands, quick pacing, continuous rocking when seated, and constant head movements. They can develop an unusual attachment to people and objects, resist change in routines, become aggressive and often cause self-injuries.
They may fail to notice, or sometimes just ignore, people, activities or objects and are unaware of what’s happening around them. They mostly find it hard to string words together in a conversation, and tend to give unusual responses when spoken to.
There are cases of children having seizures when exposed to strong smells, bright colors, lights or even sunlight. It’s a rare phenomenon and may not even occur till they reach their adolescence.
COPING WITH AUTISTIC LEARNERS
Research shows that children with autism find it hard to communicate their feelings as they often don’t know how to express themselves through facial expressions, hand gestures, touch or words.
So you need to plan your day before starting the class.
Design a routine: Taking the first few steps in learning is very crucial for children. Teachers should start off with drawing up a weekly schedule and structuring each day around a routine. For instance, conduct an hour long speech therapy followed by three hours of interactive games every day. This will ease out the speech impediment and improve body gestures and eye contact.
Use visuals: Students remember what they see more than what they read. Teach number concepts and the letters of the alphabet in a way that’s visually appealing to them. You can make cardboard flashcards or go online by using simple tools like Cram to help kids memorize.
Show real objects from their surroundings that they can remember and relate to when they see it again. Instead of saying the word “Up”, take a toy plane and show them “Up”. Talking in funny noises also helps them remember the word better, so don’t hesitate to “Meow” or do a voiceover if needed.
Start with short sentences: Autistic kids have low attention spans and have trouble putting words together while communicating. Keep your sentences short (not more than six words) and avoid interactions with long verbal strings. This will help them understand and associate with certain regular strings, like “Hello. How are you doing?” “Today is a lovely day”.
Once they are comfortable with joining and interpreting words, go for longer sentences. This also improves their ability to focus carefully on fewer words.
READING AND UNDERSTANDING
Teachers often notice that students are comfortable reading a paragraph (thanks to the training) but can’t understand or interpret what they read. This happens because the kids don’t know what a particular word means and how to use it in a sentence.
They get confused between similar words like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘person’ and ‘persona’, ‘were’, ‘wear’, ‘where’, etc. Teachers must give them time to think and answer. Preferably, sound the word slowly or associate it with a relevant object whenever possible. Make them write it multiple times with the meaning alongside and read every day.
Stretch the consonants: It’s difficult for kids to differentiate between consonants like ‘C’ in Cry and ‘T’ in Try. Enunciation and stressing upon the consonant sound work well.
Slow down the sequences: Sequencing a task makes it extremely difficult for the autistic child to interpret what was said.
For example, “Open your textbooks, page 10, paragraph 4, line 2 and start reading” is a sequence of a single task with multiple sub-tasks. Always go slow and break them up. Wait for the student to do one task at a time and then say the next one,
“Open your textbook”
“Go to Page 10”
“Now look at Para 4”… and so on.
Do it yourself: Students react better when they are actually shown how to do things. If you want to teach them to wear a sock, put it on their feet and pull it up for them. Hold their hands, and write with them while saying the words out loud. This makes remembering the tasks easier.
Never use sarcasm: Sarcasm is a big “no” and you must be very careful not to use it in front of them. If they drop something on the floor, don’t say “Great! I’ve to clean up again!” Kids interpret words literally and it’s difficult to make them understand the difference.
Keep the idioms for later: Idioms and euphemisms cause confusion among the kids as they don’t understand it yet. They are still in a learning stage and trying to figure out the actual words and sentences by associating them with the literal meaning. So “keep your ears wide open” or “Got your game face on?” will confuse them as they wouldn’t know how to do it.
Give very clear choices: Ask close-ended questions with crisp choices rather than open-ended ones. Give a clear choice of work as they cannot reply to: “What would you like to do now?” However, if you ask them “Do you want to write or draw?” they’ll know what they want.
Remove distractions: It’s easier to concentrate with minimum distractions. Make their space secluded with not much noise and other bright, colorful things that could take their eyes off the required work. Keep checking on them from time to time.
Explain again and again: Never settle after just one explanation. Repeat yourself and keep asking questions to see if they understood it correctly. Make them write it down and ask them to repeat after you.
Discover and embrace their talent: Autistic kids may be different but they are gifted with extreme talents like painting, eidetic memory, mechanical skills, creative thoughts, building blocks, etc. As a teacher, you must discover these hidden talents and help embrace it. This builds their self-confidence.
Be extremely patient: This is a primary rule that defines you as a great teacher. It’s a very tough job that requires first-hand experience. It takes time to guide these kids in the right direction. You must always keep your cool and understand their problems.
Read up relevant books: Refer to books on autism like Thinking in Pictures (1995), Look Me in the Eye (2007), The Autistic Brain (2013), and Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Know (2005).
An autistic child needs a friend in a teacher, one who understands his/her situation and treats him/her with affection. The real test of character for a good teacher is knowing when to be gentle in his/her approach, and knowing when to be firm.
Autistic kids have a wonderful mind and it’s hard work, nurturing and directing them on the right path. They need help. Be their proud teacher.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sophia Sanchez is a passionate educator and blogger who blogs about education on her personal blog. She is an ESL/EFL instructor who found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. In her free time, she watches movies and takes up freelance writing gigs. If you want to connect with her, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Visit her blog at https://essaywritingandmore.wordpress.com/