Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Is an Appropriate Education for Autistic Children?

Katharine Beals PhD

The problem of reading comprehension

Autism manifests differently as our children mature. One area where students with autism may struggle is with reading comprehension. This can pose significant problems for students who are mainstreamed and whose teachers may not understand their struggles with comprehension. Consider the following two passages:
Nobody gave The Treatment like Farquar. Palmer knew a kid who had his arm in a sling for a week after. Yet Farquar himself was maddeningly unpredictable. Some birthday boys he seemed to totally ignore, passing them on the street as he usually did, as if they were dog doo. On the other hand, he had been known to walk halfway across town, knock on a door and say sweetly to a surprised parent, "I hear there's a birthday boy in here."

Some kids turned into quivering zombies. They kept their birthdays as secrets as possible. In school, if their teacher announced their birthday, they denied it, claiming that it was a mistake. They refused to have parties. They stayed inside their house for a month so they would not bump into Farquar.

But there was another side to it. There was the honor. There was the respect you got from other kids, the kind of respect that comes to soldiers who survive great battles...
(From The Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli.)
Instead of fighting with weapons, Ghandi and the Congress Party began to use other methods of resisting the British. They taught the Indians to resist with "noncooperation" -- meaning that Indians simply refused to pay taxes to the British government. They encouraged Indians to "boycott" British goods (refuse to buy anything made in Great Britain). Gandhi told his followers to make their own handmade cloth for their clothes, rather than buying British cotton. When the British put a tax on salt, Gandhi led his followers on a march of 240 miles to go collect salt from the sea, rather than buying the taxed salt. He started with seventy-eight people. By the end of the march, thousands of people were following him.

Gandhi told Indians to take their children out of British schools. He asked them to give up privileges given to them by the British. He himself sent back a medal that the British government had given him for his work in South Africa. When a factory refused to give its workers enough money to live on, Gandhi went on a hunger strike. He refused to eat until the factory owners agreed to the raise. It took too three days for the factory owners to give in and agree. They didn't want to be responsible for Gandhi starving to death!
(From The Story of the World, Volume IV, by Susan Wise Bauer).

Both The Wringer and The Story of the World are intended for the 9-12 age range (approximately third to sixth grade). And according to the usual measures -- vocabulary, sentence length, and sentence complexity -- the second passage is unequivocally the more difficult of the two.

But in terms of the work the student must do to fill in the gaps in literal content to make sense of the text, the first passage is much more challenging. In particular, nowhere is it stated that Farquar beats kids up on their birthdays. If you don't infer this, you then won't understand why kids try to keep their birthdays a secret. And without this, and a grasp of the social meaning of "honor," you'll be completely baffled by the second paragraph of the excerpt.

In the second passage, on the other hand, much more is spelled out. The explanatory asides, while they contribute to the length and complexity of the sentences, offer useful definitions of key terms ("noncooperation" and "boycott.") In general, much less filling-in is necessary to understand the connections between sentences.

These differences between texts make sense when we consider their different settings. One is set close to home, and centers on schoolboy dynamics with which most neurotypical children are familiar. Because of this, it can leave many things unstated and still make sense to most readers. The other text, on the other hand, is set in a faraway time and place, and involves issues that 9-12-year olds cannot be assumed to be familiar with. Thus, much more needs to be made explicit. For children with autism, many of whom pick up much less of the social dynamics of everyday life, this has the effect of leveling the playing field.

Because of this phenomenon, readings centering on other times, places, and issues tend to be much more accessible to those with autism than readings centering on everyday life. Unfortunately, however, in their zeal to make everything "relevant" to students' purported "personal lives," today's educators are biasing their reading selections more and more towards realistic texts about everyday life.

Such readings not only assume background knowledge in which autistic children tend to be deficient, but, as with fiction in general, involve social features that autistic children find baffling. Any parent who spends any time reading with their autistic child sees how their social deficits impede their understanding of characters, relationships, dialogue, tone, author’s intent, and the emotional effects of literary devices. But too few of those who teach autistic children in school settings -- be they regular ed or special ed teachers -- have either the training or the experience with one-on-one reading support to have much of an inkling about how autism affects these subtle aspects of reading comprehension.

What should autistic children read?

When I watch my 13-year-old, seventh grade autistic son struggle through The Wringer and other 4th-grade-reading-level novels, getting almost nothing out of them, I wonder how reasonable it is to insist, as J's teachers do, that someone like him read fiction.

Here's a child who readily reads technical manuals, does pretty well with grade-level science texts and with 4th-grade-level history books, but who misses most of what matters in all but the most simple, basic, character-driven fiction.

On the one hand, carefully chosen fiction might help him with his social reasoning skills by giving him opportunities to see characters interacting. To this end, however, I generally prefer movies and TV shows: audio-video media capture many more of the cues of real-life social interaction than does printed text (though we keep this channel open as well, with captions turned on for extra feedback).

But if the goal is the "well-rounded" liberal arts education that comes from appreciating literature, I'm not sure it's a realistic one when it comes to those children whose social deficits are as extreme as J's.

I'm all in favor of a well-rounded education for most kids, and wary of underestimating potential and prematurely shutting off opportunities for academic development. With this in mind, it’s important to recognize the vast array of subjects that don’t involve the social subtleties and complexities of fiction. In terms of reading in particular, here are just a few suggestions for autistic students who can read nonfiction at at least a 4th grade level: straight-forward history texts, like Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World series (we’re currently on volume 4, excerpted above); how things work books, like David Macaulay’s How Things Work; Eyewitness books, like Great Scientists or Robot; straight-up science texts on anything from anatomy to cosmology to electronics to ecology. Next on our list is The Way Life Works: The Science Lover's Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along.

Mainstreaming environments: some neglected areas

As the mother of a mainstreamed autistic middle school child, and as the designer of an online course on high functioning autistic students in mainstreaming environments, I spend much of my waking hours thinking about how best to accommodate students with autism in regular ed classrooms. The article Leveling the field: Inclusion program readies autistic students for high school, featuring an Asperger/autism inclusion middle school teacher by the name of Cherie Fowler, caught my eye.

According to the article, Ms. Fowler's goals are to teach her students to express themselves better so they are successful academically in general education classes in middle school and beyond. The article credits Ms. Fowler with five specific strategies:
  1. Allowing autistic students to type assignments others would have to write by hand.
  2. Allowing them to use other assistive devices.
  3. Shortening some of the assignments.
  4. Allowing them one class period that is designed just for them.
  5. Educating each general-education class about what Asperger's/autism is.
Laudable goals, and very much in line with what the eminently practical Asperger's expert Tony Attwood recommends in his Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome.

However, this list left me wishing for more.

In terms of reading, in light of what I discussed above, middle school teachers may want to consider the benefits of severely reducing or eliminating fictional works from the required reading lists for their AS students in favor of non-fiction or technical literature. The costs to the student of comprehending fiction may outweigh the benefits. In particular, it would free up time for activities specifically targeted to improve social skills.

When it comes to writing, AS students often languish when asked to write about their personal lives and personal feelings, or to produce realistic fiction. When the topic is science or fantasy, on the other hand, they are often much more inspired and have much more to say.

In math, AS students often do complicated problems in their heads and aren't able to explain their answers verbally. They should be exempted from having to give such explanations, and should receive full credit for correct answers that lack verbal explanations.

When it comes to large, interdisciplinary/multimedia/ open-ended projects, AS students are often so overwhelmed by the breadth of material that they don't even know where to begin. In lieu of such projects, they should be given a larger number shorter, more structured assignments that offer the same degree of academic challenge.

AS students also flounder when required to work in groups. While group activities specifically targeted at improving their social skills, run by an expert in AS, are fruitful, group activities centering on learning tasks should be replaced by independent learning opportunities.

Finally, AS students are often way ahead of their peers in certain subjects and need to be allowed to progress at their own rates.

What AS children need, in other words, are not just supports for, and modifications of existing assignments, but a wholesale replacement of many of these assignments by alternative assignments and learning opportunities that are specifically tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.