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"... the most important considerations in devising educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders have to do with recognition of the autism spectrum as a whole, with the concomitant implications for social, communicative, and behavioral development and learning, and with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child across areas of development." —Educating Children with Autism, 2001
The purpose of any intervention is to make it possible for a person to participate in the typical activities and experiences of the world. In other words, the purpose of any intervention is to improve the quality of life of the student with autism.
It can be difficult to understand how a student who can participate in an advanced calculus class can’t act appropriately during a fire drill. This contradiction is the nature of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. These students are slow to learn coping strategies and they must be taught directly, in increments they can handle, and the skills must be practiced. While it may appear to be more time consuming at first, direct teaching and practice will allow the student to apply the skills independently in the future.
A skill will need to be taught more than once. In fact, it will need to be taught as often as necessary until it has been mastered. Additionally, skills need to be broken into parts small enough for the student to master. How small will depend on the individual student.
Behavior is communication. Something triggers a student’s inappropriate behavior, and the most effective intervention is to learn what those triggers are and to be proactive in addressing them. A proactive intervention takes place when the student is calm and can participate in learning. A reactive one takes place when the student’s anxiety has escalated or he has lost control, and the purpose is simply to calm him or stop him from hurting himself or others. Real learning takes place during proactive intervention strategies.
Make a plan but remain flexible. It will be far easier for an adult to read and adapt to a situation than it will be for the student with autism. Show your students the flexbile reasoning and problem solving skills you want them to learn!
Coach self awareness. Students with autism often can’t articulate how they feel because they don’t know exactly how they feel. Many can recognize the basic emotions of happy, sad, and mad, but discerning and expressing more subtle emotions such as disappointment, humiliation, and contentment are difficult. What they do know is that they feel intensely. Help them develop self awareness by learning the connections between the primary and secondary emotions. (“You seem mad. Perhaps you are disappointed that Sam wants to play with John instead of you.”)
Remember empathy and a sense of humor. Students with autism aren’t trying to make your day difficult, they’re just trying to get through the day. They are climbing mountains. Help them along. Lighten their load. Laugh. Breathe.
It’s not about you. Really. When a student is mad and tears up her worksheet because she would rather draw, she isn’t being defiant because it feels good to her or because she knows it will push you over the edge. She may be expressing her frustration over her inability to be in control of her world. What else might she be telling you? That she already understands the work and doesn’t see the point of doing the worksheet? That she doesn't fully understand how to do the work or what the directions are asking? That she’s too tired to write? That she needs a break? Explore and problem solve with her. A mere consequence for her inappropriate behavior won’t teach her the skills she needs to learn.
It’s not easy. For them or for you. Understanding how autism is expressed by a particular student requires getting to know him, which requires establishing a relationship with the student that will allow him to trust you. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to shape this child’s future--a future that has significant potential. We believe you will find the effort well worth making.
Improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in grades K-12.