Saturday, March 24, 2012

Deciding What to Teach - Part Two

Let's turn the focus here on those who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, either with a medical or educational diagnosis, or the more loosely defined characteristics that are autistic-like in nature.

I have often mentioned the importance of communication. I simply cannot imagine a more important area of emphasis for teaching/learning. Even for kids who are able to speak, maybe even write or type on their own, it's critical that they learn to use these tools to express themselves in a meaningful way. For those who lack the ability to speak, write, type, or even point to make choices the need becomes even more essential.

For me personally, and for so many of the young people I know, the use of supported typing, or Facilitated Communication, has been by far the most exciting and successful method of helping someone with limited communication ability. But I am open to anything - gestures, sign language, the wide array of alternate/augmentative devices now available, pictures, pointing, nodding ---- whatever works. What matters most is that we recognize and encourage any and all attempts on the part of that child (or adult) to let us know what they are thinking. And then we must respect what they are telling us - not dismiss it as inconsequential, or perhaps not actually coming from them.

I have also briefly mentioned the importance of learning to use free time in a way that is meaningful. Some kids actually need help in learning to play; so we teach play skills. Some need to learn what to do during recess, or how to take a break on the job. Many would benefit if we the teachers would encourage them - the learners - to make use of their various talents and interests in ways that improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even contribute to the quality of the lives of others. Far too often, we have determined that a particular interest was an "obsession" to be phased out rather than developed. How many artists, poets, musicians, architects, designers, or other creative geniuses have we stifled in this way?

In addition, a child who can find acceptable ways to entertain themselves makes for a happier family. A child who can remain seated and quiet while coloring, scribbling, or paging through a magazine, is more welcome in a regular class setting. An adult who has hobbies and interests is a much happier person, leading a more satisfying life.

Teaching a person to use computers and other technology is a life skill that will serve them well in almost any environment. Put kids in front of the computer as young as possible and help them learn to use a mouse, click and drag, surf the net, google what interests them, play games, send an email message --- there is no limit here to what can be taught and learned. For those who become "stuck" on certain activities, maybe childish ones we'd like to see them outgrow, gently move them forward and introduce new and different options. (Apology here to those students who tried so hard to convince me of the value of computers in those early years. Sorry, I was a slow learner. I am now totally on your side!)

Putting all of this together, what I really see as most valuable to all concerned is to make use of whatever works to help an individual let us know what they are thinking, what they need, and what we can do to make their environment more user-friendly for them. This includes helping them learn to recognize - and then express - what they are thinking and feeling; helping them make meaningful choices in every possible situation (what they want to eat, what they want to do, what they want to learn about, etc.); helping them know when their sensory systems are approaching overload - or shutdown - and what can be done to make things better; helping them to request a break before a problem develops, and on and on. They need our help and support every step of the way in this process. People with autism are generally not in touch with what is going on within, and people who have gotten used to having others make choices for them have trouble even knowing what they themselves really like or dislike.

In a recent typing session with my friend Roy, I asked for his input on this topic. His advice to all of us follows, as typed:

"Teach the other kids to accept the ones with autism. Teach the other teachers how to be more understanding. Teach everyone to be more joyful. Joy is really how we feel when people like us. Teach them to see us as the ones who try very hard to do what is right."

I can't say it any better than that. I can't imagine anything more important.