Autism for school teachers

Ukraine has joined the global trend towards inclusion. Schools should organize necessary conditions for children with special educational needs according to the Law. This means that children with various disorders, including disabilities, have the right to study at schools, and the state guarantees the necessary conditions creation for it – living, technical, methodological, pedagogical. And if the sensory room or a ramp arrangement is often a funding question, then the personnel quality and the learning process organization depends on the school. How to teach a ‘special’ child and what does a teacher need to know to be successful?

Autism symptoms, or what a teacher faces at school

Having a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a major challenge for the teacher and children in the classroom. The manifestations of autism are diverse, but even with a highly functional disorder, the teacher will have to spend a lot of effort on learning, finding an approach to the ‘special’ child, as well as working with children and parents for whom autism is a strange and unknown concept.

According to the international classification of diseases ICD-10, there are such  disorder’s ‘types’:

  • early childhood autism;
  • atypical autism;
  • Rett syndrome;
  • Asperger’s syndrome.

Each type has its characteristics, but the key disorder’s characteristics are difficulty in establishing contact with others, detachment and isolation from the outside world, behavioral stereotypes, and narrow personal interests. An autistic child is emotionally closed, focused on himself, and does not show a desire to communicate with people.

Therefore, the teacher should prepare for ‘surprises’ in the learning process:

  1. Autistic behavior is different from that of neurotypical. A child with ASD may try to cope with sensory loads – rocking, chewing a pencil, twirling an object in his hands, covering his ears with hands, or occasionally vocalizing. A school break is the most difficult time for an autistic because everywhere is noisy, there is no order and there are many people around. The majority of autistic children are overwhelmed by this situation, and they ‘withdraw into themselves’, recovering their strength, and coping with the overload. If your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he needs to move. 

Some autistic kids also do not understand that the teacher’s address to the classroom concerns them. Children with ASD have perceptual problems: they often take information literally, need extra time to respond to a request or task. Therefore, such a feature may seem rudeness or ignoring the teacher.

  1. Intellectual development features. Non-linearity intellectual development is often observed. Children with ASD perceive visual material well, focus on details, memorize large amounts of information –  the names of the capitals of all countries of the world or a whole paragraph on biology, for example. However, it is difficult for an autistic child to grasp the meaning of what has been read or to draw conclusions from the story told. It leads to problems in understanding tasks. Most autistic children have a special interest (something very fascinating), within which a child with ASD can know everything. Outside of special interest, knowledge is poor, because time and effort are spent only on a special interest. This is also due to the peculiarity of autistic thinking: if there is no clear understanding of why something to learn or do, children with ASD will not want to do it.

For inexperienced teachers who meet an autistic child for the first time, this causes alertness, anxiety, and sometimes irritation. However, this behavior is not the result of the child’s disrespect or pedagogical neglect – it is autism, whose symptoms are unusual for the teacher.

How and what to teach an autistic child

There is no single approach or methodology in teaching a child with ASD. Autistic children differ in the level of social skills, speech, and the ability to learn the material. The school curriculum is adapted to the opportunities and peculiarities of a particular child’s development, taking into account the recommendations of the inclusive resource center (IRC), and makes adjustments as he ‘move forward’. This means that the standards, pace, assessment criteria will also differ from the generally accepted ones. However, some autistic children master the school curriculum successfully. They only need social or sensory support such as making friends with classmates or having a quiet room for the rest if necessary, for example.

There are no special textbooks for autistic pupils, as well as school programs: children study according to one general education program, and a child with ASD – taking into account the recommendations of the IRC.

The child’s assistant (tutor) adapts the ‘standard’ school assignments in the class that is not available to a child with ASD. His or her tasks include accompanying a child with ASD and assistance in learning – modifying the tasks of the general education program to the abilities of an autistic pupil. Preparing additional visual materials, reducing, simplifying, or eliminating tasks that are could not be completed, for example. The tutor also involves a child with ASD in the whole class work  –  in verbal questioning, when the autistic child is asked on a par with neurotypical children, but within the limits of his abilities, for example.

The child’s assistant is a kind of ‘interpreter’ of the general program language into the autistic child’s language, taking into account his features. Besides, the tutor accompanies the child’s education at school and stay with him physically.

The tutor’s main purpose is to become unnecessary, i.e., to teach a child with ASD independence, moving to the background step by step. The child’s assistant (tutor) is provided by the parents today.

A teacher must establish contact with a tutor, talk over the educational process organization, and ways to solve difficulties that will probably arise at school.

The teacher of the inclusive class is recommended to use the following  teaching techniques with an autistic child:

  1. Motivation. Right-chosen rewards allow an autistic pupil to keep an interest in the learning, learn the material better, and cooperate with other children in the classroom. Children with ASD are difficult to motivate with marks or praise, as is the case with neurotypical ones. Such kids like medals, tokens, certificates, cups for a completed task or diligence at the end of a quarter. The best motivation for an autistic child is an attachment to a special interest, but there are nuances in this matter. First of all, classmates also want a ‘special’ reward system. Secondly, the autistic child can get used to the fact that any completed task leads to a reward. And this complicates development in the future. The reward system should aim to ensure that the child with ASD has enough emotional praise or reward at the end. Only a highly qualified specialist can achieve such a result, and there are very few of them in Ukraine.
  2. Visualization and modeling. Most autistic children are visual. Visual examples of correct actions (showing how to raise a hand in class, for example), the schedule and homework on the board, image cards with the sequence of actions – these tools help to remember and learn the necessary skills better. Moreover, it is an excellent communication tool with a non-speaking child.
  3. Peculiarities of perception. To focus attention on a child with ASD, conditions are created where nothing is distracting. If it is difficult for an autistic kid to tolerate bright light, why not let him sit in class with blackened glasses? Or play with a rosary to reduce anxiety? You can also let a child with ASD walk quietly around the classroom to relieve stress during the lesson.

What results to expect

The inclusive education effectiveness for a particular child with ASD depends on the cooperation of all process participants – teachers, tutors, school administration, and parents, as well as the class (children and their parents). If the family does not talk about the child’s needs, then the teacher will not be able to help and to prevent situations that will lead to hysteria or a nervous breakdown.

All need to accept the child’s disorder and learn to interact with each other to avoid problems and not to make the school unbearable for an autistic kid.

Parents need to tell the teacher as much as possible about the child’s features, his perception, communication skills, as well as be interested in school affairs, communicate with other parents, continue therapy with defectologists, psychologists, etc. Parents must take their child to school in advance – a year earlier to go to classes, to get acquainted with the building and teachers, for example.

Teachers need to be special trained to work with autistic children, to read literature, attend seminars that are available today, and sincerely want to understand and help, observe communication rules for a sustainable result. After all, what is good for autistic pupils is also helpful for other children in the class.

However, expectations should not be overestimated. It is necessary to realistically assess the child’s strengths and capabilities. Autistic children learn self-regulation and social skills with age, so the visible autism signs can ‘smooth out’ or disappear altogether. Besides, autistic children have a problem not with mastering the school curriculum, but with the social and sensory overload that prevents learning.

Serious educational work is also important. Telling children at school about autism, the reasons for the behavioral ‘oddities’, promoting the friendship between children maximally, informing parents of neurotypical children that autistic children are not dangerous is needed.

The more understanding, interest, and communication between adults, the more successful the child is!