One of Your Students Has Autism…Are You Ready to Teach?

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When my daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2004, all I remember feeling is numb relief. I remember thinking, “Okay, this has a name, a well-known one. We can get to work.” I was completely unprepared for how little society, the educational system, and even my own family knew about autism.

What’s strange to me now is how long it took for us to get a formal diagnosis. Make no mistake, my child was identified with significant delays by her first birthday, an unheard-of age for an autism diagnosis. Despite starting Early Intervention at thirteen months, the actual diagnosis didn’t happen for quite some time while one expert after another took a crack at it.

Fast forward to today, the month she starts her sophomore year in high school. I’d love to say that it’s been smooth sailing when dealing with her school, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that we’ve had it far easier than most. But as a parent and as a 20-year veteran teacher, my question remains the same:

Why isn’t it smooth sailing for every kid?

We Know What Autism Is, Why Don’t We Know What to Do About It?

I’m going to ruffle a lot of feathers here, but if you’re in education and you’re still ignorant about what autism is or how it can manifest…get another job. Given the staggering rates of diagnosis and the exponentially larger numbers of kids who receive no formal diagnosis, there is no excuse in 2018 for any teacher to not have attended a workshop, taken a class, or at least read up on autism. It’s statistically likely that you even have a relative on the spectrum, and if that’s the case, there is no excuse not to educate yourself on how that can impact a student and impact your classroom.

Now that you’re good and mad, let’s talk about it.

One of my chief complaints about how autism is “handled” in the public school classroom has nothing to do with my daughter and everything to do with that “other” kid, the one who is bullied relentlessly by the other students, the teachers, and even the administration for being a little different, a little strange. You know what I’m talking about, and if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve even witnessed it firsthand:

  • The student who prefers to work alone, or who doesn’t get along with his peers because they don’t get alone with him.
  • The student with a “weird” obsession, like dinosaurs or movies or vacuum cleaners (yes, vacuum cleaners…it’s actually pretty common among autistic people).
  • The student who always seems to be picked on or laughed at for saying some off-the-wall things.
  • The student who can be counted on to blurt out, “What’s the male dog doing to the female dog?” during a biology class video.

And the list goes on. But now that you have this in your mind—and might even be thinking of specific students—what are you going to do for that student?

Zero-Tolerance for Bullying

I don’t care what this student says, does, wears, or thinks, there is absolutely no excuse to look the other way while your other students engage in bullying. But how do you put a stop to it when autism is at the source? It feels like you only have two choices: ignore the bullies and hope the student stops acting strangely, or call out the bullies and reason with them by appealing to their sense of decency and violating the autistic student’s confidentiality. Both options are wholly unacceptable, and that’s why you have to navigate these waters very, very carefully.

Maybe Try This Instead…

You cannot “fix” autism, nor should you even consider that an option. The opinions on how best to view a diagnosis belong strictly to the individual and his or her family, but know that suggesting a “cure” or treatment options is considered highly offensive to many stakeholders. Instead, there are many things you can do to support someone with autism in your classroom.

First, acknowledge that there’s nothing about this kid that is hurting you. I swear, he’s not doing it to you and none of it is personal. At the end of the day, you’re going home to your life and he’s going home to his.

However, also know this: what you do in your classroom can have a major impact on how that student feels about himself, about the level of confusion that colors his perceptions of your class, about the way that he feels when he’s in your classroom. It can literally have life-long implications. Newsflash: all of your students feel that way, so why do we work so hard as teachers to lift up some kids while leaving others behind?

Strategies to make your classroom a better place for both you and your autistic students? Yes, please!

    1. Stop the bullying at all costs – There is no excuse for tolerating open, blatant bullying. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t
      hear it, or if you’re not sure that’s what the other kid really meant, or if the autistic student in question doesn’t seem to mind, or if
      you’re tired of this kid yourself. No excuse, period. Anything that is reported to you or sounds condescending or insulting
      should be ended, not just for autistic students but for your entire class.
    2. Help redirect certain behaviors – Autistic people are known for “stimming,” or doing something repetitive and often mindless
      that helps them focus, feel centered, and feel safe. (Note that last part: feel safe…are you going to demand that a
      student stop doing something that makes him feel safe?)

      Some of these behaviors can lead to bullying from both classmates and other teachers. It might be talking to himself under his
      breath, playing with his pencil, rocking back and forth, getting up and walking, or any other calming behavior. It’s your
      job to notice what it is and support it. If the current classroom activity doesn’t allow for it, talk to the student and
      ask if there’s something else he can do instead temporarily.

      My daughter is considered on the very severe end of the spectrum, and as a result her stimming can be quite noticeable. She often
      jumps up and down and vocalizes, but through patient practice, we came up with a solution for crowded situations—she can squeeze
      her hands repeatedly. I do still have to ask her, “Can you squeeze your hands or do you need to go outside?” Usually she will start
      squeezing her hands, but it has happened that she was so overwhelmed we had to leave the movie or restaurant so she could jump.

    3. Work with the parents, not against them – Every frustration you might feel when it comes to working with a specific
      student—autistic or not—is compounded exponentially for that child’s parents. If you have an identified autistic student on
      your roster, reach out to the parents and simply ask them, “I want to do the very best that I can for your child. What does your
      child need from me?”

      You might do well to check with your school’s special ed teachers first, though. As you’ve learned with every single student you’ve taught, some parents cause more problems than they solve. Ideally, all parents have their kids’ needs at the forefront, but we know that’s not always true. There may also be a long-standing grudge between the school and the parents, one that has absolutely nothing to do with you, but it would be good to know about it first.

      From there, listen. Let the parents tell you what this student’s needs are, and talk about how to best accommodate those needs in class. Leave the lines of communication open and be available for the parent to let you know what’s going right or wrong.

    4. Know the law – Aren’t sure you can accommodate a special needs student? Let me make it easy for you: you don’t have a choice. It’s literally the
      law, and whatever is in that IEP is a signed contract between the student, his parents, the school, and you (even if you weren’t the general education teacher to sign it). If you’re not
      willing to write in a homework folder or communication notebook because “he’s old enough to do it himself,” I hope you have a lawyer
      because you’re in violation of a federally-mandated contract if it says in the IEP that you’re going to do it.

      See how easy that was? Now, let’s breathe and take a nicer approach. Don’t think of it as just “the law,” but rather think of those accommodations as the things the student, the parents, the teachers who’ve taught him before you, and even your school system administrators have decided are what he needs. Are you going to deny a child those things because they require extra effort?

      From there, talk to the student about what else he needs to succeed in your class. It might be a seat away from a certain bulletin board because it’s too “busy” looking, or an extra copy of the textbook so he keeps one at home and one in his locker. Wait, that’s not fair to the other students? Guess what…if this was fair, your student wouldn’t have autism. Get “fair” out of the equation and do what is best for him.

    5. Wait, this kid isn’t autistic…I think – Here is another reality of teaching: not all of your students are identified
      or receiving services they need. After really working with a student on the spectrum, you may start to notice other students who
      have similar traits or characteristics. You check your paperwork, but nope…they’re not autistic.

There are a lot of reasons why a student might not be diagnosed, and those reasons would fill up several articles on their own. That doesn’t help you, though, and it certainly doesn’t help that student. If you find you have students who need a little different approach in your classroom, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making some accommodations for them, too. I’d hope you would do that for any student with a unique need.

Perhaps the single most important advice I can give you is this: stop looking at this student and others like him as a challenge and make
the decision that you will love him fiercely. Seriously. Decide right now that he is your favorite student, and even when that feels
very far from the truth, repeat it: he is my favorite student…he is my favorite student… If it hasn’t already, with
the right attitude and the right actions, it will become true. When your students come to your classroom each day, make sure it’s a place
where their needs—all of their needs, both instructional and emotional—are being met.

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