Monday, December 5, 2011

An Autistic's Advice: Ten Tips for Teachers

Lydia Wayman
autisticspeaks.wordpress.com

There is so much misinformation and so many misperceptions out there about people with disabilities, and that includes autism. I’ve read some things lately, comments by teachers or people who will teach, that have sent me reeling. In typical Lydia fashion, I will write a Ten Things in an attempt to dispel these myths about people like me.

1. People with disabilities are not always happy, joyful, eternally childlike, or “perfect angels.” People with disabilities are humans.

This means that we experience the full range of human emotion, including the uncomfortable ones, such as anger and sadness. Some of us are generally happy, just like some people without disabilities are generally happy, but others of us are confused, angry, hateful, manipulative, and so on. Autistic children display inappropriate and unwanted behavior just like typical children do.

2. Always assume we understand everything you’re saying when we’re in your presence, if nothing else, just in case we actually do.

I’ve heard teachers and parents talk together about a child like the child isn’t even there. Not cool. Especially with autism, some children understand everything you say but have no means of expression. Many children have been labeled with ID and are, in fact, brilliant. For years, parents and teachers talked like the child wasn’t there … when he was entirely there. He was hurt. And, unlike a typical child, he has no way to express that hurt.

3. Do everything you can to treat us age appropriately.

I look and act younger than my nearly-24 years, but I like to be treated like the intelligent and sentient being that I am. If you think you need to use baby talk to reach a child … try music, dance, art, sign, PECS, sports, typing … and so on.

4. Please reduce noise … and not just auditory noise.

There is visual noise, smell noise, thought noise, and tactile noise. If your room has fluorescent lights, use the blue light covers available on Amazon. Cover busy carpets. Tile floors reflect light which makes them hard to walk on. Everyday school materials (Sharpie, glue, paints) can lead to intense reactions for people with autism. Never ask more than one question at a time. This causes thoughts to build up and collide without ever making it out of my mouth. Finally, offer a sensory corner that is dark and quiet, where a child can rock in a chair, lay in a beanbag or under a weighted blanket, or spin.

5. Offer as many means to communication as you can think of!

Verbal communication is not enough. For me, the ticket is typing. For other children, it may be art, or athletics, or PECS, or Sign Language, or movement, or a certain kind of music, or design, or building … You may find that you can connect with a child via his preferred method of expression. I should note here that Facilitated Communication, or FC, is a perfectly viable option for some people. There have been times that I have become dysregulated to the point that I could not type, and tactile input from someone would have made it possible for me to communicate. It can be done wrong, but when done right, it can open doors.

6. Always assume intelligence. Did you hear me on that? ALWAYS assume intelligence.

7. Paint a picture of a person rather than a disability.

Rather than describing children as, “Jimmy, the low-functioning autistic child,” try describing the child as, “Jimmy, an autistic boy (or a boy with autism, whichever you prefer) who has poor expressive but great receptive communication, likes to spin, and is obsessed with dogs.”

8. Routine, routine, routine.

If you lived in a world as confusing as ours can be, you would want as many things to be as predictable as possible. If something like … opening meeting is always the same at school, and then it changed one day, it would be like you missing your morning cup of coffee, driving a different car on a different route, parking in a different spot, and teaching in a different classroom. You’d be upset, too! And the child who has little to no means of communication has no way to say, “Hey, not cool, and I’m really frustrated,” like you would. They have only their behavior to use. Visual schedules are huge for ASD kids. I even have them around my apartment, not with pictures but with words.

9. Be careful how much you expect from a child who is not using is “first language.” 

As I said, I type. But you can’t expect the same degree of intelligence and insight to show through when I speak. Imagine if you had to spend your whole life writing with your nondominant hand. Well, for me, speaking is like doing just that. Be patient. We can learn and we can improve, but we need your belief in us and your patience.

10. Praise us when we’ve earned your praise, but not for every little move we make, or it becomes meaningless.

Build on our strengths as you work on our weaknesses. We are proud of ourselves when we succeed, so help us to see what we can do and become! Teach us to dream!

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A version of this essay was previously published at autisticspeaks.wordpress.com