Autism in the Classroom: Overcoming ChallengesLast updated Monday, May 07, 2012 |
Cognitive Processing Delays
Sensory Perception Issue
Social Skill Deficits
Motor Skill Deficits
While every child with Autism presents with unique needs and behaviors, it's important for teachers to understand the general types of concerns they are are likely to encounter.
Cognitive Processing DelaysProcessing delays should never be confused with intelligence. Processing delays have little do to with the capacity to incorporate and evaluate observations and ideas. Delays in the ability to process verbal or written language have a neurological basis. For those individuals who suffer delays, facts, ideas, and questions are often delayed or even lost in translation from language to thought and vice-versa.
For older children and teenagers with Asperger's or high functioning autism, the problem can be especially frustrating. It's not unusual to hear teachers, inexperienced caregivers, and even parents say, I was just asking him questions and he exploded on me. In that scenario, the attacked party will think the line of questioning is what triggered the aggressive response; however, it may have little to do with the content of the questions.
By the teen years, the student understands that he or she is expected to respond to questions in a timely fashion when engaged in conversation. However, some things can't be rushed and consequently, there is that awkward pause, which the other person tries to fill by rephrasing the question or by asking another one. The truly uninitiated might even try repeating the question slower and louder as if talking to someone hard of hearing. Now the teen, feeling denigrated as well as rushed, hits that overload point and responds with aggressive acting out.
Processing issues are similar -- at least in result -- to the way we might function when being spoken to in a foreign language with which we have only a rudimentary understanding. While the native speaker chatters on, we are having to translate the words into ones we understand and occupied as such, will miss much of what is said.
In a classroom, where children are expected to shoot up their hands in response to questions, processing delays can present a seemingly impossible barrier with both learning and social consequences. When the child with ASD is called on, the untrained teacher, rather than waiting will elevate the child's stress by repeating the question or expressing impatience, and when the pressure becomes too much, the child will simply check out or respond with an inappropriate behavior. If the child checks out one too many times, it will be a great challenge to reengage him or her.
What to do?
Once made aware of a processing problem, teachers can employ a number of strategies, most of them in partnership with the student.
They can make certain to give the student the time needed to process a fact or a question, before expecting a response. Some students can be taught various methods to buy needed time, including restating of the question, asking for a few seconds, or simply putting up a finger to signify they are thinking.
For oral lectures, students can be permitted to use a recording device or given summary notes afterward. Most importantly, a teacher can privately assure the student that he or she will not be put on the spot. In situations where the delay is exposed in front of the entire class, the teacher must be cautious about the use of sarcasm and humor to break tension; as in moments of stress, the student may interpret such attempts at humor with inappropriate literalness.
Sensory Perception IssuesSensory Issues can serve as a mild distraction, but they can also provide nearly insurmountable barriers to learning in the classroom.
It is almost impossible to fully empathize with what these students are feeling. Some experience minor difficulties and others have seemingly gone through the looking glass. The flickering of fluorescent lights is barely visible to most of us, but for a child with ASD, it may be as distracting as working under a strobe. Eventually, it will exhaust the student and rob him or her of the ability to focus. The child with ASD may also hear the humming of those lights, not as a barely perceptible background noise but as a growling that fills every silence and even grows to compete with the teacher's spoken words. Any of the senses can be involved. A child might be especially sensitive to certain sounds, have a poor sense of balance and lack depth perception, and / or be unable to tolerate certain tastes and textures of foods. Even the scratching of a pencil across a piece of piece might set that child's nerves on end in the same way that many of us are reduced to quivering when a piece of chalk squeaks on a board.
The legs of corduroy pants rubbing together
The seemingly imperceptible whine of an Ultra High Frequency controller
Nylon, wool, polyester, on skin
Vibrating hand tools
A handsaw on hardwood
Rides on escalators
Certain pens scratching across certain pieces of paper
The texture of Cottage Cheese
Any of these might cause anything from mild shivers to sharp pain in the neural system of the the child with Autism. Some students have too many sensitivities to even catalog. Some keep theirs secret, asahemed and afraid of their weaknesses. It's uniquely isolating to be held at bay by a sensory distortion that no one else experiences. Department stores, amusement parks, construction sites, can all present as torture chambers of the senses to children with ASD.
What to do:
Ideally, all classrooms should be equipped with low-flicker bulbs and anytime a bulb or ballast is starting to go, it should be immediately replaced. Even better, classrooms should be lit with natural light.
The teacher needs to speak with the student and encourage him or her to tell the teacher without shame about any environmental distractions. By doing this, the teacher and administrators may learn to appreciate and alleviate many problems that can interfere with the student's ability to learn. Sometimes very simple steps can be taken. The teacher can shut off the overhead lights and open the blinds, turn off the screeching high frequency alarm assist that few others hear, turn the intercom off rather than just down to the point where only the child with ASD hears the crackling, provide the child with a medium point rather than a fine point pen and a slightly dulled rather than over sharpened pencil to eliminate the vibration feedback from writing. There are many other seemingly innocuous sensory stimulations that may not be so innocuous to the child with Autism.
Butterfly Effects behavior consultants and occupational therapists can be called in to help schools set up their classrooms to better accommodate children with various challenges. With the recent influx of children diagnosed with ASD, it would save schools a lot of time to proactively make the accommodations that will allow all children to learn in environments that are free of unnecessary challenges. Teachers will encounter enough significant challenges that they could not anticipate; it would be smart of us to take care of those that can be anticipated.
Social Skill DeficitsSocial skill deficits can make a student with Autism, the odd child out. Without training and sufficient mindfulness, even well meaning teachers might slip into intimidating and sometimes even bullying behavior with the child who is always lagging behind and just odd.
Teachers need to understand that the emotional affect that comes naturally to most of us may need to be taught to children with Autism. Teenagers with Asperger's, especially girls, will often talk about how they learned how to react to and engage others by imitating what they refer to as neurotypical behavior. And like anything learned by rote rather than intuited, those behaviors may at times feel forced and not especially fluid or natural.
When the teacher gains a student's trust and successfully partners with him or her, the child can stop pretending and can then begin taking advice and cues from the teachers. The schoolroom is the perfect microcosmic lab to acquire and practice social skills. The conscientious teacher can do much to help promote this and encourage the tolerance and involvement of other students to help the child become socially fluid both in terms of emoting his or her own feeling and state of being as well with interpreting the meaning and feeling implied in the expressions, words, and actions of others.
Expression ChallengesChildren with Autism can present with a wide range of expression challenges outside the usual range of speech and language challenges.
Children at the low end of the spectrum can present with significant speech delays and a number go through life without ever developing verbal skills. However, if addressed early by speech and language therapists, many of these children can improve those speech skills and in some instances catch up with their peers before they enter grade school.
For those children who possess the intellectual capacity to function in the general class, speech and language skills can still present a number of obstacles.
They may have problems expressing their own emotions and feelings as well perceiving and knowing how to respond those of others. This can be as extreme as lacking the ability to recognize faces and differentiate between different people or as subtle as lacking the ability to appreciate and make use of nuance and tone of voice when communicating.
They may express themselves with antiquated or pedantic language. Speaking like "little professors," they can come off as pompous or simply out of touch. While this trait may seem like one the child consciously selects, teachers need to know that it is not a choice. The child is not trying to show up his or her classmates or teacher, or even appear more erudite.
While it is unlikely, the student will ever make full use of more common vernacular, he or she can be made more conscious of language choices and the often negative impact they have on others. Overtime with the right and consistent encouragement, they can be taught to moderate their speech and speak in ways that don't make them stick out from their peers. Rather than abandon their pedantic speech, they can be placed in situations where it may prove an asset such as in those field of learning like science, math, and engineering where precision of language is critical.
Children with ASD may also speak with odd inflection and accents of undetermined origin. This may be apparent with every sentence they speak or present only with certain words. If they move to a different region where the accents are very different, they may begin to adopt the new accent. Here teachers and parents should help the student from developing an extreme affected accent that may even prove offensive to one's new neighbors.
While this issue can have social consequences, it is not usually considered high priority. In fact, over time the student may grow out of this situation, especially as he or she is exposed to speakers with various accents and dialects. Teachers should not force the child to change or ceaselessly correct the student especially in front of the entire class. In fact, the teacher should model normal communication with the student for other students in the class.
Another unique challenge that falls somewhere between a sensory, social, and expressive concern is that the student with Autism may have issues differentiating among people. While recognizing different faces comes naturally to most children, those with Autism may have to develop more creative ways. Nurses in children's hospitals should never wear the same uniforms and on those first few days of class, teacher and aids should make a point to wear unique and distinctive clothing so they are much more easily identified.
Motor Skill Challenges Much of it may have to do with the different way in which children with Autism develop a sense of self and individuate from their mothers. Not unrelated, they may also have had issues understanding where their own bodies leave off and the rest of the world begins. For some that confusion might never totally disappear.Also, the neural systems of some children with ASD are simply wired differently. These children may have reflex issues and challenges with sending messages from brain to body. This may present itself in the way the child runs or throws a ball. It may also present in an inability to tie shoelaces and keep shirts tucked in. It can also present as an inability to master handwriting.
What do do?
Forcing a child to do endless handwriting practice is never a good solution, yet this is the most common approach for children with poor handwriting. What typically occurs with forced solo practice is that the child's bad habits are reinforced. With some children, handwriting issues are best addressed by a trained occupational or behavioral therapist.
Children should not be held back or graded down for handwriting challenges that cannot be readily remediated. Nowadays, there are any number of options for inputting written language and they should be used without hesitation.
The child with motor skill issues if not assisted will become further isolated from peers if he or she develops a dread of gym class and even recess. In some cases where the playground is anything but an equal playing field, these student may even act out to have recess privileges taken away. While teachers cannot always control the Darwinian nature of the lightly supervised playground, they can step in to eliminate instances of bullying and teach all students a heightened sense of empathy. This is best accomplished through the telling of stories and group discussion.
Teachers need to be trained well enough that they are able to trust their own judgment, as every situation and every child is unique.
While it is good to make as many moments as possible into teachable moments, sometimes it's better to just stoop down and tie the child's shoes. Every issue doesn't need to become a battle, and if the child knows that he or she has an unconditional and caring ally for those battles he or she does fight, that child will become more willing and spirited in his or her efforts.
Through ABA training, tutors and teachers can learn many of the basic techniques to motivate children and overcome various barriers.
Visit our YouTube Channel for examples of several of behavioral strategies in action. While these strategies are demonstrated with younger children, they can be readily adapted to work with learners of all ages.
Want more help with behavior strategies, check out Ask Heather, an advice column written by trainer's trainer Heather Morton.
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