Many thanks to the author of the wonderful blog Autism and Oughtisms for agreeing to write this spectacular post. Although the post is intended for student teachers it has lessons for everyone within the education system.
I’m going to start this post by telling you to read something else, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the symptoms of autism, and with how to adjust a classroom environment to suit the child’s challenges. It is a brief and useful introduction, well suited to teachers.
My own post is a more personal account of what I would like teachers to be aware of when they find out they will be having an autistic child in their classroom. I draw on personal experience, research, and conversations with other mothers of autistic children, particularly within the New Zealand context.
Parents are a child’s first teacher. When it comes time to hand their five year-old over to a school teacher for the first time, those parents become understandably nervous. That “parent as first teacher” role, and that nervousness of handing your child over, is intensified so much for the parent of an autistic child that many initially consider home-schooling as the only realistic option.
Before an autistic child even enters a classroom, the parent would have gone through an extensive (and often exhausting) process of deciding what classroom setting will best suit their child’s abilities and disabilities. They may have visited a special needs school, a mainstream school, and done their homework into home schooling. By the time that child begins their first class, you can be sure that the parent has not made the decision lightly, and will be evaluating their child’s progress and response to the school situation, from the very first hour.
I can see how that might be intimidating.
When we visited a mainstream school when trying to choose the right setting for our son, I got the strong impressions from both the administrative staff and the prospective teacher that my son – and his challenges – were not welcome. The admin staff were reluctant to meet my eye, asked awkward questions about whether they’d have to change long-standing school policy to suit his needs, and generally hid behind their laptops (typing instead of talking). In the new-entrant class, the teacher looked bored and distracted as she taught the class, and appeared unwilling to make time to talk to us even though that was a central purpose of the visit. We left the classroom early; unimpressed with what we’d seen, and hopeful that the special needs school visit would go better.
My son’s autism affects him in major ways, but he was considered “borderline” when it came to his education options: His team of therapists said he could fit into either a mainstream or special needs setting; the choice was up to us. We were lucky to have that choice; many autistic children simply do not qualify for the government funding required for entry to a special needs school. They are then forced upon schools which are often under-prepared and under-resourced to cope with the child. Some parents who have the choice, still decide on a mainstream school, because of a belief in the benefits of an inclusive education, and worries that a special needs education wouldn’t challenge their child academically or could worsen their child’s condition.
So what do us parents need to see, and need teachers to know, when we come knocking at prospective classroom doors?
First and foremost, there needs to be a willingness by the teacher to learn: A willingness to learn about the symptoms of autism, how autism affects the child’s learning, and a willingness to take on the challenge of an autistic child. The teacher also needs to be open to the fact that they don’t have all the answers in advance, and be willing to say so; such honest communication is a good beginning point. If the teacher really thinks they do have all the answers, and wishes to convey that confidence, it is essential that they show they understand that their knowledge must be tailored to the child; this shows the parent that the teacher understands each autistic child is unique, and that they’re aware of what the parent can bring to the table in terms of understanding how best to help the child.
The transition of an autistic child into a new classroom situation – whether new-entrant or not – requires a partnership with the parents. If the teacher gets their help up-front, instead of waiting for the problems to turn up, they will be less likely to end up in what is now considered the classic situation for parents of autistic children in mainstream schools: The parent on-call for addressing problems in person, even to the extent of affecting the parent’s ability to hold down a job. It need not come to that if the parents and teacher work together from the start, and strategise in advance; alerting each other to new issues as they arise and before they get out of hand.
There is nothing inherent in autism as a condition, that limits a child’s intelligence or makes them impossible to teach. My own son for example (who has a diagnosis of classic autism) is clearly intelligent and incredibly eager to learn. There are however aspects of autism that will get in the way of learning; it is after all a developmental delay and learning disability.
The methods and skills teachers learn for handling and helping an autistic child, can be more generally applied to the other children in the class too; potentially making them a more effective all-round teacher. The heightened awareness of aspects of communication – spoken and unspoken – and the problem-solving approach to behavioural and social issues, will not only benefit the rest of the class, they can also enhance the teacher as a person. Many people – parents, teachers, carers – have the opinion that working with autistic children has made them better people along the way. The sense of achievement as you help these children discover the world, and reach and exceed their potential, can be exhilarating and highly rewarding.
But it is a very real challenge. It can be exhausting; mentally, emotionally, and physically. Some teachers do not want to teach these children, and their frustration and anger about being put in such a situation, will be picked up eventually by both the child and the parent. It is all too easy to lose your patience with a child whose behaviour is repetitive and seemingly without purpose; who sticks to rules with a literalness that can be stifling and frustrating, while at the same time seemingly disobedient to the apparently simplest of requests.
Parents of autistic children are known to shift their children from school to school - despite the huge stress involved with change for a child who craves predictability and certainty – trying to find one that is genuinely welcoming at both an administrative and teaching level. Prior to the parent realising that change is needed, the child can easily become the victim of both student and (unintended) teacher bullying, in a way that seriously affects them and their entire family. Instead of putting the family through this, a teacher should be up-front about their concerns, and be proactive about asking for help. There are charities and government services that can be called upon to educate and assist them; they shouldn’t martyr themselves at the expense of the child.
Something of particular concern for parents is the inability of our children to tell us how their day went. Even when their speech is quite advanced, these children frequently struggle to talk about what happened at school beyond a clinical description of what class followed lunch-time. There needs to be regular and open communication between the school and the family, along with heightened awareness that the child is an easy target who will rarely be able to defend themself or seek help. These problems don’t necessarily get better as the autistic child ages: As social standing and peer relations become more important in the later years, autistic children who were perhaps previously coping, can become isolated and dangerously depressed.
My own family is just at the start of the school journey. For now my son is in his satellite class, but he is responding well and learning so much, that I can foresee him entering a mainstream school years from now. I am hopeful that if/when that day comes, the schooling system will be better prepared than they are currently, to welcome and include him beyond just being a name on their school roll. He has unlimited potential in the hands of the right teacher. He is utterly amazing for achieving what he does in the face of his challenges. When teachers recognise those extra challenges, and realise how much an autistic child can achieve with the right support, they have taken the first steps to making a lot of lives better: The child’s, the child’s family’s, the classmates’, and even their own.
Educating an autistic child is an opportunity; making the most of that opportunity can change lives.