The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at quirks-and-chaos.blogspot.com. For more resources for teachers and help with inclusion and acceptance at school, check out the Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit here.
I have a follower who is a teacher and she asked me to do a “Ten things I’d like to tell teachers about autism” list. I came up with 12 things that I would tell my son’s teachers in grade school if I could go back in time.
1. Autism is a huge spectrum.
If you have taught other children with autism you may have a good general idea of what autism looks like but my son will still be different than the others. If you have questions about my son or how autism affects him, ask me. Nothing will impress me more about you than your willingness to learn about my son and his needs.
2. A routine and transition warnings are helpful for a child with autism.
While we know that flexibility is an important life skill and one we need to work on, my son does not handle surprises or big changes in his routine well. Things like a substitute teacher, a fire drill, or a field trip are all going to cause anxiety for my son. A warning and clear instructions will help. A visual schedule would be a helpful tool for my son. A five-minute warning, a two-minute warning, and tolerance are needed.
3. A child with autism needs extra time to process language.
Use simple language and short sentences. Give no more than two-step instructions. Give my son at least three full seconds after you make a statement or ask a question to respond. If you choose to repeat, do not rephrase, as then he will have to start processing over again. Trying to hurry my son will only slow him down further.
4. Receptive language and expressive language are two different things.
My son may understand much more than you think he does. He may not be able to put into words all the things he wants to say. On the other hand he may be able to quote long complicated phrases or passages without understanding any of the meaning of the words. It is difficult to know exactly what my child really knows and what he still needs to learn sometimes.
5. Children with autism are literal.
Figurative language and abstract ideas are a mystery to a child with autism. So, when you say things like, “Pick up the pace” and your other students know you want them to walk faster, my son will be looking for something called “pace” that he should be lifting from the floor. These things happen all day long.
6. A child with autism can get stuck on one subject.
My son obsesses about things that do not matter to you or I. He might want to talk about Disney movie characters for a long period of time and there will be little you can do to distract him. He gets stuck in a continuous loop. Occasionally these topics of interest can be incorporated into his learning but mostly they distract him from learning.
7. A child with autism may need help with social interactions.
My son will probably appear disinterested in his peers and he may actually be disinterested but he will never learn social skills unless we keep trying. You have him in a perfect setting for teaching social skills. It is an environment I cannot recreate at home. It would be so helpful if you would use every opportunity available there to teach and reteach social skills.
8. Sensory issues are a distraction for many children with autism.
Sounds that are barely noticeable to you may distract my child and keep him from learning. Textures may cause my son to recoil in disgust. Smells may him to gag. Please be considerate of this. Over stimulation can sometimes overwhelm him and cause a meltdown. A meltdown looks similar to a temper tantrum but it is not the same at all.
9. Children with autism use stereotypic behaviors or repetitive behaviors when they are excited, bored, or stressed.
My son will need redirection throughout the day. The behaviors will cause him to appear odd to his peers. Please consider giving the class an age appropriate definition of autism to help his peers understand.
10. Positive Reinforcement will be helpful but punishments will not.
Punishments or threats of punishment will probably result in anxiety and impede progress. He will work toward a reward but will shut down if he fears a punishment.
11. People with autism tell the truth as they see it.
My son may let you know you need to lose weight, you need a shave, or your breath smells bad. Do not take it personally. A sense of humor is a must when working with children with autism.
12. Kids with autism are not scary or unlovable. They are just different.
Sometimes different is intimidating but educating yourself about autism and about my son will help. I’m can help with that! I will willingly answer any questions you have.
For more resources for teachers and help with inclusion and acceptance at school, check out the Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit here.