As an educator of future special education teachers, my job is to present the best research-based strategies that are designed to meet the academic and social needs of children with autism. What seems to be of equal or greater importance, in my opinion, is to teach my students to know and love the people they will teach (the children and their families) more than the interventions they employ. “The best way to love the children you serve,” I tell them, “is to develop a sense of understanding and empathy for the family.
Because promoting an understanding of the parent perspective in raising a child with autism is something I care about very deeply, I’ve done considerable research on this topic. Concerned parents have expressed their frustrations and joys over the years, and here I present just a short list of what some of the parents in my research have shared. Parents want their child’s teacher to demonstrate care for the students and families they work with rather than maintaining an exclusive focus on implementing the strategies they’ve learned about.
Teachers have probably heard lots of things about autism—some truths and some myths. The top seven myths that parents of children with autism want their child’s teacher to know about and work to combat are:
1. My child is purposefully disruptive or defiant.
Every act seeks an end—a person gets something out of performing a behavior. This is true for everyone. We do things for a reason, and every behavior has a purpose. Most of the time, children either get something or avoid something by engaging in certain behavior. Things they might want to “get” include attention, an item, activity, or some form of control over a situation. Things they might want to avoid can include attention, tasks, demands, or unwanted activities. If my child is using a behavior to get something, try and figure out what he or she is hoping to gain. If my child is trying to avoid something, try and figure that out too.
Children need the consistency of a reliable adult to will provide support and guidance. My child is not purposefully disruptive or difficult. Find out what message my child is trying to send. Understanding why the behavior might be happening is necessary to select more appropriate behaviors to replace the challenging ones
2. My child should be able to perform the desired behavior with instructions given once.
Sometimes, things that others are quick to learn might take considerably longer for my child to learn or become comfortable with. It isn’t that my child isn’t listening, or that he/she doesn’t understand, or that he/she isn’t trying hard to grasp a concept. You might have to show my child how to do something (because children are so visually-oriented), and then be prepared to show him/her many times. Lot’s of patience is needed, and please don’t give up. He/she won’t be great at everything immediately. My child is worth it!
3. Seek to address the weaknesses exclusively.
My child doesn’t need any help with feeling that he/she is not good enough, or that he/she needs to be fixed to do well in your classroom. My child doesn’t need any more criticism. Look for his/her strengths (there are many), and capitalize on those strengths to teach new things. Knowing my child’s strengths will be the key to unlocking his/her potential. Utilizing strengths can provide motivation and success in learning something new.
Some examples of strengths commonly associated with autism are: an exceptional memory for facts and figures; high motivation in topics of interest; excellent attention to detail; ability to follow instructions and rules; skills in arts and music; innovative approaches to problem-solving; and honesty, just to name a few. They are also very visual learners, so anything you can present in visual form is important for unlocking potential. You might find that some of the “deficits” associated with autism are diminished when children are engaged in their specific areas of interest.
4. My child is broken and needs to be fixed.
Children are sensitive to environmental stimuli so that they might react to changes in routine, and get frustrated easily, but they are not broken. You don’t have to try and fix my child. You might not be able to stop some of the behaviors you don’t like. I believe that instead of fixing him/her, you would both benefit from taking the time to understand and respect him/her. My child will likely never “behave” in the way you’ve come to expect from other children in your class. But his/her behaviors are not wrong. My child deserves your understanding.
5. My child doesn’t listen to spoken instructions.
It is important to know that visual learners prefer written language or diagrams or charts that illustrate concepts. Many children with autism cannot process verbal instructions; they need to be shown the steps, sometimes many times over before the patterns and expected behavior can occur. My child might not take in information if it’s presented in verbal form. If it’s not written down, or visually presented through graphics or pictures, he/she will not retain it. Flashcards, pictures, words—these are all excellent tools for students who learn visually.
If you give an endless string of oral directions, you might be tempted to think my child is not paying attention, or that he/she is defiant or troublesome by not listening. Many children with autism find it difficult to understand and follow spoken directions. Think about ways you can present directions visually, rather than expecting him/her to try harder to understand your verbal directions. Please don’t presume my child is not trying or try and convince him/her to try harder.
6. My child should be able to pick up social skills easily.
It might look like my child doesn’t want to play with other kids at recess, but it may be he/she just doesn’t know how to initiate a conversation or join in play in ways that are understandable to others. Most children with autism desire to have friendships but they need help developing the social skills necessary for interacting with their peers. Children with autism find it extremely difficult to interact with their peers. They have trouble reading body language and understanding social cues from others. Promoting positive interactions with peers is important for his/her development.
Teach my child how to play with others, and encourage other children to invite him/her into their activities. My child might long to be included but just doesn’t know how to get started. Model appropriate ways for him/her to join peers. Provide structure and support in social interactions. Developing social skills will help with language and cognitive development as well.
7. My child needs more stimulation.
My child’s brain is constantly working overtime to accommodate the overwhelming environmental stimuli, from noise to lights, to social cues, to changes in regular activities and routines. If he/she seems tired, it’s because…well…my child is tired. He/she doesn’t fall asleep easily. At night it can sometimes take two hours to get to sleep because my child gets out of bed a lot and I have to tuck him/her back in numerous times before he/she finally goes down. My child goes through a lot every day. So if he/she seems tired, don’t try and pep my child up.
Not only can overstimulation make bedtime and sleeping difficult, but it can result in shutdowns or meltdowns during the day. Look for ways to help him/her deal with the overstimulation, rather than providing consequences for “misbehavior.” My child’s not defiant or misbehaving on purpose—he/she is merely coping with the overstimulation in the only way he/she knows how. Find ways to help my child cope.
This list is not exhaustive. I’ve heard many parents express their desire for teachers to understand their perspective, and this list is a just a summary of the most frequent responses. Educators, if by some fortunate circumstance you have students with autism in your classroom, take the time to get to know your students’ strengths and areas of need, and be intentional about doing all you can to encourage and support your students and their families. Be a part of dispelling the myths commonly associated with children who have autism.
Dr. Robin LaBarbera is a professor of special education and the director of the online special education credential program at Biola University. Her research interests include the experiences of stress, resilience, and coping among caregivers of children with autism. Her textbook, Educating students with autism spectrum disorders: Partnering with families for positive outcomes with Sage Publications will be available in January 2018. Learn about Dr. LaBarbera’s credential program at http://education.biola.edu/grad/programs/credentials/special-education-credential/.
This article was featured in Issue 72 – Sensory Solutions For Life