Ten ways to engage an Autistic learner.
Autistic Students were given over 9000 fixed term exclusions in the 2015/16 academic year. So it is safe to say that there are a lot of Autistic students failed by the education system in the UK.
Following on from this blog, this post is specifically focused on strategies that may be effective for autistic children. This post draws heavily on the work of Damian Milton from who’s writing I have learnt so much from over the last year or two. This booklet has particularly shaped my approach to teaching. Most of these strategies are really just aimed at reducing stressors throughout the day. I would like to stress these are interpreted through my teaching experience and context is very important.
10 Ways to Engage the Autistic Learner
1. Identify strengths first (and use them).
I have seen many “about me” books that clearly outline the interests of the child. Having these interests embedded in planned learning is less common. Once you know what a child is good at you have the foundation for extending these skills. (PS. Do not label a special interest as an obsession). This will also increase the feeling of value the child has.
2. Don’t think your way is the best way.
Move your ego out of the way, it has no place in an inclusive classroom. Yes, you may have designed a task with a specific outcome and way of working but you may not have found the best way for the child to achieve that. I am constantly surprised by the innovative approach my student’s take to tasks.
3. Accept misunderstandings work both ways.
Find a common communication system – do not apply yours, adapt and find what works for the child. Never presume that as you are listening to a child you understand what they mean and vice versa. This has been referred to as the “double empathy” problem.
4. Reduce environmental barriers.
“For people whose disabilities involve significant sensory issues, as autism does, inclusive environments are often nightmares of continual sensory bombardment which interferes with learning and causes constant discomfort and pain.”
(Sainsbury, 2000: 41) This may be simple things like getting the lighting right. Flickering lights are a no-no. There are lots more tips about the learning environment here.
5. No forced eye/physical contact
Learn what your child can tolerate. If they look down or past you when speaking it may be helping them concentrate on your words. Here is a quote from this article by Trevisan et al (2017)
Making eye contact feels sort of like the first breath one takes under water using scuba gear, where there’s this moment of panic as your body says, ‘No, no, you’ll drown!’
6. Let the child complete what they are doing.
This is based on the concept of “flow state“. It can be really difficult, if not cruel to interrupt a child who is mid-task, focused on something they are enjoying. Judging when and how to direct to a new task requires knowledge of the child, but strategies I have found effective are using a visual timer and sitting with a child until their attention switches to me. If you are using a more structured approach a count down such as “two more Songs” etc can work well. If a child is watching a video I general recommend letting them finish watching that episode or segment before reengaging.
7. Allow Time (and then a bit more)
Have you ever had a child drop to the ground? Maybe they are not being stubborn maybe they are just working through the process of moving between places or tasks. I have heard this described as being in the cinema when suddenly all the lights come on and the film stops mid-scene. Sometimes people just need a bit of time and space to work things through.
8. Provide an opportunity for control.
Does the child have control over simple things such as where they sit? Can they move seats if the sun moves or in the afternoon when they may need to be closer to the teacher?
This links to the next point…
9. Think about how you build in structure
This could be a whole post in itself. It is generally accepted that it is important to provide a structure and predictability within the day. I have seen little discussion around the input the child has into this day. Is the structure consensual built as a group or by the individual or is it enforced to fit in with staffing, timetabling? Within a school, some things may be hard to change. If you say you provide a person-centered approach the child should have input into how their day will look.
10. Provide a safe space that is NEVER used as an exclusion room.
Calming, easy to access and with use supported by praise and positivity. A safe space should allow the child to escape to safety when things become overwhelming. This area should be simple and it’s purpose taught before the child needs to use it. This could be following an exciting stimulating activity followed by a period in the area to aid a return to baseline.
References and Further Reading
Milton, D. (2017) “Imagining Otherwise”: Challenging Dominant Views Regarding Autism and How to Help Autistic People. Care knowledge [Online] https://www.careknowledge.com/special-reports/2017/sep/imagining-otherwise-challenging-dominant-views-regarding-autism-and-how-to-help-autistic-people
Milton D, From finding a voice to being understood: Exploring the double empathy Problem. Accessed Online: http://www.autscape.org/2013/programme/handouts/Double%20empathy%20problem.pdf
Becky wood: Interview with Dr Damian Milton. (2016) Available online: https://acertheblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/interview-with-dr-damian-milton/
Trevisan, D, Roberts, N. Lin, C. Birmingham, E. (2017) How do adults and teens with self-declared Autism Spectrum Disorder experience eye contact? A qualitative analysis of first-hand accounts. (Available Online)