Awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders puts educators at the halfway mark

08/09/2011  |  Carl Brass, PCC
Special Needs and Autism
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Today, a great many educators in the United States are familiar with the characteristic symptoms of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, also commonly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) — most notably Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

For most, there is an understanding that goes beyond the purely theoretical in regards to these diagnoses. Direct experience, for which there is no replacement, has equipped teachers with skills sufficient to recognize the telltale signs of an ASD when confronted with it in real-world classroom settings. When a student presents with: impaired social skills; deficits in communication; stereotyped interests and/or behaviors; oft rigid thinking; an inordinate desire for sameness; and hypersensitivities to light, sound, and/ or touch, many a teacher working in today’s schools will say to him or herself, “I know what this is.”

The ability to identify a student’s unique intrinsic characteristics, which can impact his or her ability to learn, whether the child is typically developing or otherwise, is a distinguishing feature of many truly outstanding educators. Whether pinpointing an inherent strength to be fostered or, conversely, a barrier to be overcome, great teachers are often great diagnosticians. The high level of awareness about ASD symptoms amongst American educators is something to feel good about.

However, there is more work to be done. Symptom recognition alone is not sufficient for improved outcomes. In order to help students with ASDs reach their full potential as learners, teachers must be able to employ appropriate and effective strategies for instructing. The failure to call upon proper methods, in spite of an accurate assessment, exponentially increases the likelihood that not only the student, but the entire classroom, will suffer.

These days, for any teacher who desires, there are opportunities galore to develop, expand or refine one’s approach to working with students on the Autism Spectrum. There are an ever-increasing number of comprehensive models available which fill the pages of broad texts, permeate on-line resource centers, and makeup the content of entire courses, offered in a myriad of settings, all devoted to this specific set of neurodevelopmental symptoms. For those who may have limited time, here are some general strategies to employ, should you recognize Autism Spectrum traits in a student, but find yourself at a loss for how to proceed:

Base what you do on objective assessment

In most cases, individuals with ASDs have an inhibited ability to self-express due to deficits in communication, underdeveloped social skills or both. This means that even if a student with such symptoms has extraordinary personal insight, which is uncommon, and is entirely in touch with the many complex variables present within their own body and the classroom that affect their readiness to learn, it is highly unlikely that he or she will be able to relay that information to anyone. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the educational team to take inventory of factors which positively and negatively impact the student’s ability to meet his or her full potential.

Use objective assessment and observation to measure said factors and determine interventions; don’t just throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Start to record observable behaviors that interfere with the processes of teaching and learning. Track outbursts, instances the child left his or her seat, became distracted, and so forth. Document dates and times that the interfering behavior was displayed. Also, take notes on the factors that were present prior to said behavior, as well as the consequences that resulted from it. Was the class transitioning back from recess? Was the child being asked to complete a specific task? Afterwards, did the classroom come to a screeching halt? Was the student sent out of the room? Was it completely ignored? After a week or so, take a look at what you’ve got. Cross reference the behaviors that were recorded with precipitant factors, antecedents to the behavior, and the outcomes that followed. See if patterns emerge. If possible, base what you will try next on what you have objectively measured. School Psychology and Applied Behavioral Analysis offer teachers a plethora of more formal tools for objective assessment.

Do not rely solely on spoken language to present information

Although there is much that is still unclear about the etiology of Autism and the exact manner in which it affects the brain, it is understood that for most who have an ASD, language skills have been compromised to some degree. In severe cases, individuals may fail to develop spoken language altogether and may have extremely limited receptive language skills. In other instances, an individual may only have a pronounced deficit in one realm. There is immeasurable permeation in the way that Autism interferes with the development of communication. It is safest for teachers to assume that spoken language alone will be insufficient for properly representing any and all information to students with ASDs.

Use visual accompaniments to supplement spoken language. There is extensive research that has demonstrated their effectiveness. Images usually provide far more texture, for all learners, than words alone. For individuals whose brains have developed atypically, such that expressive and receptive language skills are severely hindered, visuals are often a necessity. There are many useful software and internet programs available, which can assist teachers in creating such accompaniments.

Control the environment

There is so much that falls outside of a teacher’s sphere of influence. Taking proactive measures in the classroom, in order to control the environment is almost always to a teacher’s advantage. There is no substitute for preparedness. For educators working with students with ASDs, this applies not only to attention paid to the content of a given day’s lesson, but also to the thought and effort put into readying the environment.

For individuals with hypersensitivities to various forms of sensory input, as many students with ASDs are prone to be, simply being positioned next to a loud vent, directly under a fluorescent light or close to a bustling hallway can be the difference between success and failure. Attend to these factors. Think also about where materials are kept and how they are organized. Plan for how you would like the flow and tone of the class to be. Anticipate when breaks will be needed and where a given student can go if he or she shows signs of agitation. Improvisation will always be a part of teaching; however, stacking the deck will improve your odds.

Let go of rules and beliefs that are clearly failing you and the student

Although it is imperative that teachers take measures to provide for consistency and predictability in the classroom, it is also important that they not become rigid and inflexible. Those characteristics, in most cases, will be assumed by the student with an ASD.

To avoid feeling like you are embattled in a struggle between an irreversible force and an immovable object, cease yourself to be immovable. When confronted by situations where a student is absolutely stuck, find ways to change expectations. Do not cling to dogmatic ideas like, “I am the teacher, every student must conform to the universal rules of this classroom.” In some instances letting go of a strict adherence to a rigid level system or the idea that all students must remain seated and quiet at all times, can break a destructive cycle. Empowering students with ASDs by offering choices can help them to feel less out of control and lead them to be more successful. Consistently take inventory of the expectations you are placing on a student with Autism traits. Choose your battles wisely.

Be consistent and predictable

Most students with ASDs yearn for predictability in their daily lives. This can be difficult to account for in the classroom. However, if teachers establish set routines, provide supports, and take a consistent approach, many struggles can be mitigated.

Utilize descriptive visual schedules. Provide the student with a detailed breakdown of how the increments of his or her day and/ or session will play out. The scope and level of specificity involved in the schedule should be dictated by the child’s needs. If possible, include expected lengths of time that will need to be devoted to a given task, the people who will be working with or available to the student, which peers, if any, will be participating, and what area of the classroom or school the activity will take place.

Teachers must also remember that they need to take a consistent and predictable approach to instruction. The resources that are made available to students with ASDs must always be afforded. If a child is presented a detailed schedule and is able to earn a certain privilege for exhibiting desirable behaviors one day, he or she cannot show up the next day to find that there is no schedule and/or that what he or she has looked forward to earning is not available for them. The tone and temperament you display with the students should remain consistent as well.

Conclusion

When looking into the foreseeable future at the state of education in this country there are many areas that warrant cause for alarm. The prognosis for students with ASDs in the classroom should not be considered one of them. Teachers have made exceptional progress in a relatively short amount of time. A high level of awareness in regards to diagnosis currently exists. As the frequency of instances in which effective strategies are employed and as more sophisticated methods of intervention and tools are developed, outcomes for students with ASDs should improve dramatically.

Carl R. Brass, PCC, currently serves as the Director of the Monarch Boarding Academy and Monarch Hall at Bellefaire JCB. Mr. Brass holds a Master’s Degree in Community Counseling from John Carroll University and is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor. His current area of clinical interest is the Autism Spectrum. For more information, visit www.bjcb.org or www.monarchcenterforautism.org.
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