Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Differentiation & Autism

Before I begin this post I should say, I am not a special education teacher.  I am simply a "regular ed" high school Spanish teacher of 17 years.  So, why am I, a Spanish teacher, sharing this post about differentiation and autism? Because...

Here are just a few ideas that have worked for my students, with (and without) autism, in addition to special education modifications and accommodations:
  • Personally connect every day.
    • Pull up a chair next to the student or simply kneel down to his/her level.  It doesn't need to be a long conversation every day, simply a two way interaction to start off the class.  Ask how they are doing or what they did the night before...any question that will elicit a response (verbally or even a head nod) will help a student with autism make a connection with your class.
  • Discover their passions and connect.
    • One student loves candy, another loves puppies - sometimes all it takes is having a basket of candy in eye sight or a packet of puppy stickers to encourage participation.  Sound silly? I think not. If you have a student with a sweet tooth and candy is the reward for participation, you suddenly have a resistant child with autism participating.   
  • Embrace technology.
    • In class, most students are connecting with other students throughout a lesson.  A student with autism can find it difficult to make face to face interactions.  One day, I saw a girl with autism on Twitter, so I dug a little deeper and asked her to tell me why she liked Twitter.  She said she feels less judged online and has lots of online friends, but not so many at school.  Isn't that interesting...for those of you that thought social media was minimizing our personal interactions with others, think again.  For a child with autism, on line communication can be an easier way for a student to express his/her thoughts.  Consider having an online platform for students to comment and/or answer questions.  Here are just a few:
  • Assist Inquiring Minds. 
    • Have you ever had a student that asks question after question?  One year I had a girl that kept beating me to the punch.  I would begin an explanation and she would ask a question before I could finish the explanation.  Wait time is very difficult for some students, it can be twice as difficult for a student with autism.  What seemed to finally work, for this girl in particular, was an index card.  At the start of class I would give her an index card.  If I were speaking to the whole class, she was instructed to write her questions on the card.  Once I was finished speaking, if I had not answered all of her questions on the card, she could then ask me her remaining questions.  Other ideas to assist inquiring minds might be:
      • using technology for the student to ask questions
      • reward wait time with something they love (candy, stickers, computer time...)
  • Student Choice.
    • Allow students to choose their learning path/activity by scaffolding for levels of readiness.  Offering choices to a student with autism can help him/her feel and actually be in control of his/her learning.  Abandon the one size fits all approach.  In order to avoid a student being overwhelmed, limit the number of choices to just a couple and use concrete language for the directions.
While one strategy may work for one child, the same strategy may not work for another.  I've found, regardless of the child, there are three essential keys to differentiating for students with special needs in your classroom: pacing, patience and persistence.
    • Pacing.  You must keep your fingers on the pulse of student learning needs.  It is up to you to know when to stretch a student and when to slow down.  Students, especially those with autism spectrum disorder, may not always have the words to express his/her learning needs.  You must offer frequent check ins for understanding and adjust activities according to mood and/or ability of the student.
    • Patience.  If you think you are exhausted from your efforts, think again.  My best friend of 30+ years has 3 boys with autism. Yes 3.  The 45 minutes of patience I give in a one class pales in comparison to the love and patience she offers her 3 boys, 24 hours a day.  
    • Persistence.  There will be days when you exhaust your bag of tricks. There will be days in which a student tries to shut down.  On these days, consider giving the student some space.  Simply check in with the student throughout the class by kneeling to his/her level, speak in a soft voice and offer words of encouragement. If the student can break through long enough to interact with you, consider this a win for the day and begin again the next day.  Finally, do not allow defeat to reside in your classroom.  Create a culture of persistence and start anew every day.  

I dedicate this post to my soul sister, Melanie, who gives her unconditional love, devotion and energy to her 3 autistic sons. If you were to look up strength in the dictionary, her picture would be there...well it should be anyways.  Love you Mel-O-Wheat!