Nurturing Our Spectrum Children in and Out of School
I became a better teacher when working with Asperger’s and Autistic Spectrum students. I learned that they are brilliant children who see the world through different lenses and add so much to society.
Unfortunately, society hasn’t been educated about children with Asperger’s. However, there is a new movement bringing attention to their uniqueness through television and movies through the characters. I will share what I have learned about teaching children that behave differently to create a positive and effective classroom.
I remember during training on Asperger’s Syndrome the surprising backlash it created amongst the teachers. Some teachers felt it wasn’t up to them to accommodate these children, that these children simply needed to comply with their rules. The instructor neglected to share with us that many of our most incredible innovations came from people on the Autistic Spectrum.
Famous persons with Asperger’s are Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, and Temple Grandin.
Having taught many children with Asperger’s over the years, I knew we needed to learn as much as we could about neurodiversity.
I also knew it wasn’t about training the teachers; it was also about creating a collaborative atmosphere for parents with Asperger/Autistic children.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
It is defined as a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the ability to interact and communicate with people effectively. Asperger’s are highly functioning people on the Autistic Spectrum. Whereas children with Autism may be unable to communicate and/or have difficulty with gross-motor skills. Asperger’s children typically have a non-inflectional tone in their speech and have awkward mobility.
Asperger’s children typically demonstrate the following behaviors:
- Social interactions are awkward
- Depressive moods
- Inability to perceive gestures
- Difficulty in recognizing others feelings
- Aggressive behavior
- Difficulty in understanding humor
- A significant difficulty with non-verbal movement and behaviors, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, awkward or clumsy body postures and gestures
Facts About Asperger’s Syndrome:
- One in fifty-nine children in the United States has autistic spectrum disorder.
- Diagnosis doesn’t require lab testing or imaging.
- There are no known cures or treatments available.
- It can last several years or be lifelong
- (More information can be found in the resources below)
Creating a Home & Classroom Environment for These Students
An excellent example of the characteristics of Asperger’s can be seen in the following television shows. The actor, Freddie Highmore, portrays a doctor with Autism and Savant Syndrome in ABC’s, The Good Doctor, and Jim Parson’s character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper in CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, portrays a Theoretical Physicist with quirky behaviors.
Although these were environmental changes I made in my classroom, the same can be done in your home to make deeper connections with your child.
1.) Begin With Their Peers
I had to teach my students why people with Asperger’s and Autism do things differently from the typical school population. This leads to a classroom that supports their peers rather than shuns them.
However, this must be done while the student is present, so they can share how they feel in certain situations and hear how their peers can help them adjust to noises, transitions, and inappropriate behavior.
As an example, this class discussion can be about things we do that may make others feel uncomfortable. Some children can ignore loud noises, but for the Asperger’s child, this same noise puts them off task.
Having various students share how disruptions make them feel, being sure to include your Asperger’s students, as well, the students then can consider alternative ways to handle noise or disturbances.
Jonathan*, one of my previous students, was a sweet child, but he didn’t realize that he stood too close to his friends, and it bothered them. For the class to learn boundaries, we had open conversations about telling what we liked and what we needed.
For example, “Jonathan, I want to hear your story, but I need you to stand farther away from my face” teaches everyone to respect each others’ needs to make them feel comfortable. The “I want… but I need…” phrases can be used for most situations.
It also helped that I taught the students about the neurophysiology of the brain. Once they knew how their minds worked under stress and how to calm their brains, they had more compassion for classmates with different tolerance levels than they did.
2.) Share Lesson Plans with Parents
If the child was previously diagnosed, I would meet with the parents about alternative homework, alternative projects, behavior modifications, and in-school support. This takes some planning, but once it is established, it can create a close rapport with these families and make unexpected eruptions in the classroom less stressful.
I send home a copy of my lesson plans with the student. Yes, plans change, but it keeps the parents informed on what may be coming up and considerations for adapting the lessons for their child.
Homework is modified to benefit the students at home. With our Asperger’s students, I’d rather see them practicing with siblings or parents to be introduced to people, share toys, converse in small-talk, be compassionate than memorizing facts and figures.
I find out what the child’s passions are since most Asperger’s children have an obsession with a particular topic. Once we can find the carrot, projects and homework can then be adapted to their interests.
For example, one of my students was obsessed with Dinosaurs, and the class was learning about geography at that time, so I had him work on mapping skills of the 20 top famous archeological fossils found around the world. Simple adaptations can bring meaningful learning for the challenged child and make for a happier classroom.
3.) Allow Flexibility with Curriculum and Assessments
This was such a significant paradigm shift when it came to my Asperger’s students. We can’t expect them to think or act in the same manner as their peers. Consequently, I had to properly evaluate what these children were learning, then realizing too, they might not be able to demonstrate their abilities like their peers.
Learning their strengths and weaknesses in their learning style also made me more aware of my own teaching style. I had to consider their difficulty in regulating stress, such as informing them of a Vocabulary test or changing the class routine for the day.
In these situations, most Asperger’s children do not do well with change. I had to have written directions and visual directions, which isn’t as easy to recreate. Asking my Asperger’s students to repeat what I was asking of them is a common way to find if they understand what they are to do.
I had to put myself in their shoes. How can I prove that I understand something without assessing it in the traditional sense? For example, if an Asperger’s student felt overwhelmed with a 30 question Math test, could I reduce the number of questions or give the test over a few days? Adapting to their needs helps them feel successful, and you can get a more accurate assessment of their learning.
Oral quizzes became a quick and easy way to assess comprehension and understanding of concepts. Most curriculum assessments can be completed by allowing the students to use art and design as a form of assessment. The student could create a poster, diorama, model, or diagram including the necessary content with a minimal writing assignment attached.
Ironically, many of our universities are pulling away from standard testing to prove a student’s performance in the classroom. When I started implementing these innovative ways to test understanding, I realized it made my job easier and made the students less stressed.
Think of how we are evaluated as teachers. We don’t sit down with a multiple-choice test each year. We prove our knowledge through collaboration, outcome-based data, and a portfolio of work.
Adding an inexpensive and calming fish tank can do wonders for your classroom environment.
4.) Create a Calming Environment
Creating a room where students can read or write without distraction establishes an atmosphere of mutual respect. If you do for one student, you do for all, with only a few exceptions which we discuss in class.
Tools I use to help students self-regulate their learning.
- Study Carousels– cardboard or wood can be put up around desks to create a less visually distracting learning area. My Asperger students would often grab a portable carousel to use around their desk during center rotations or independent writing. This lessened the visual distractions that can occur when children are working independently.
- Padded Headphones– I was able to round up broken headsets, such as those that come with tape recorders that no longer worked, which provided a quieting effect for the child.
- Plants– yes, plants. Not only do plants soften the room, making it more inviting, but it also helps air quality. I used the maintenance of the plants as a job for my Classroom Economics. Many Aspergers children loved learning the appointment of a Horticulturalist.
- Fish– You’ll have to decide if your classroom can handle a small aquarium. I used the one pictured above for many years. Even raffling off the opportunity for students to take home “Charlie” or “Fidget” at the end of the year. Betta fish are incredibly easy to care for especially using the aqua plants that help aerate the bowl or aquarium. Some teachers go bigger and get the rectangular kind with a heater and the little scuba diver, but I wanted to keep it simple. My Asperger’s students loved earning time to visit our class fish. It was also a very calming place for them to recenter themselves. One of my Asperger’s students would stare at our fish while I was doing a read-aloud. I was amazed how he never lost track of what I was reading as he stared at the fish. I also provided Post-It notes for students to ask questions they had about fish. Students would earn Classroom Economic money for correctly researching the answers. Many students also enjoyed being our classroom Marine Biologist for their job.
- Flexible Seating– Now more than ever, I appreciate sitting or standing when I work. After recovering from an automobile accident, I had to move around more than I used to. This, of course, was essential for me, but Asperger’s students also need to have the flexibility to sit or stand when their bodies can no longer remain still. Parents will be the first to tell you whether their child has issues with standing or sitting still for long periods at the beginning of the school year. Often, I would allow my Asperger’s students to choose their own seating as long as it would not disturb others. I would set up boundaries and practice how to move without disturbing others. I typically allowed the whole class to do flexible seating within reason, especially when doing small-group or independent activities.
- Mindfulness Stressed Base Reduction– Utilizing the latest research in mindfulness skills, I taught all of my students self-regulating skills to help them through various transitions and behaviors during the day. Meditation with breathing techniques, finger labyrinths, journaling, and mindful transitions helps students become more purposeful in their choices. Asperger’s students thrive with routine and smooth transitions, so it’s essential to keep a schedule up of the day easily visible.
- Visual Schedules- Most teachers display their schedules for the day or week on their board. For the Asperger’s student, this is crucial. They feel most secure in environments that don’t change. Keeping them informed of any schedule changes helps them adapt easier to a new event or conflict. I learned that if I made them my “Administrative Assistants “and had them post the schedule on the board in the mornings can help them visualize their day. I created laminated labels that had magnetic tape on the back. They would move the magnetized cards to their appropriate time slots. Explaining why a change occurred in their daily schedule helps them learn about impermanence and flexibility, with which they often struggle.
- Classroom Buddies- this was established at the beginning of the year during their neuroscience training. Students were given a list of behaviors to look for and then were taught how to intercede. Behaviors such as crying, sadness, anger, aloofness, and even jealousy were role-played. Then we discussed what that person may need when we recognize these behaviors. Often, students would learn that giving the person a smile with a compassionate nod was all the student needed. Anger or violence should only be dealt with by an adult, not the student. Buddies would help each other with daily check-ins by asking how they were doing and practicing small-talk.
These are just a few things I learned to help our Asperger students adapt easier to the energy and chaos a classroom can create.
Neurodiversity is here to stay. Even now, more than ever do we have to adapt to these changes in our classroom demographics. Learning various techniques in dealing with children with alternative ways of understanding and learning helps us become better teachers for all students.
Previously Published on medium
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