Freshmen and Autism

I’m back!  How much did you miss me?

Steven Harper PiziksAfter sliding into the shadows for a while to meet deadlines of doom, and then taking a small spotlight as Book View Cafe’s secretary, I’ve now returned to BVC blogging.  Igor is in the house!  I’m staking out Wednesday as my territory.  Because everyone needs cheering up on Wednesday.  We might talk about writing, or we might not.

So today our topic is autism.  Just because.

Last week I decided to pause a moment in my English 9 classes to talk about autism.

See, I have several autistic students this year.  Since my middle son is autistic, the counseling department at the school where I teach has decided I have the secret code to teaching autistic students, and they always give me the autists.  This year, we have a whole mess of them.  Some are diagnosed autistic, others are clearly autistic but, for one reason or another, not officially labeled that by the school, though they’re still special education students.  They fall under “speech and language impaired.”

Anyway, they’re all in my classes, and I know the neuro-typical students have noticed, so I figured we needed to talk about it.

“We’re going to take a few moments now,” I said, “so that we can talk about autism.  Some people are familiar with autism, and others aren’t . . . ”

I gave a little explanation about what autism is and the fact that my son Aran is autistic and talked about some of the challenges autistic people face, along with some of their strengths.

“It’s okay to talk about autism, including with autistic people,” I said.  “A lot of times we’re told it’s rude to talk about differences, like if someone is in a wheelchair or wears a hearing aid or has other challenges, but it’s perfectly all right to talk about this and ask questions, especially if you’re trying to understand better.  More and more people are being recognized as autistic all the time, so it’s good for all of us to know what it’s about.”

The autistic students in the room weren’t at all shy about adding their own information and experiences, and they seemed glad to see that their condition was recognized and discussed in class.  (I’m imagining some of them going home and saying, “We talked about autism in English class today!”)

Overall, the discussion went enormously well, and I think it helped the neuro-typical students understand a lot better who these students were and what was happening with them.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Freshmen and Autism — 9 Comments

    • I should think this demands a good deal of flexibility and creativity on your part, but what a great thing for the autists and the neurotypical, both.

      I am, by the way, in the middle of reading NeuroTribes, by Steven Silberman, which is terrific. If you haven’t read it and your schedule permits, pick it up. (It’s also a brick–500+ pages–so I’m reading it on my e-reader.)

    • I avoid figurative language when I’m talking to autists. I also tend to over-exaggerate my emotional state, since most autists have trouble recognizing facial expressions and body language. I also vocalize my emotions more: “I’m frustrated that . . . ” “I’m glad to see . . . ” “I’m unhappy that . . . ” I’ve also learned to be more up-front and forthright. “You may not say that word in class because it is against the rules.” “If you want to speak, you have to raise your hand and wait for me to call on you. That’s the rule.” “That’s the rule” works well with many autists, who are often very concerned with The Right Way To Do Things.

      • Okay, this is reaffirming to know. (When I was teaching, gut instinct caused me to explain things to kids I suspected had autism, although I tried not to vocalize emotions. That is I tried to make things about the task that needed to be done, rather than the doer, or me expecting it to be done.) But the rest, yeah.

        My autistic kids also tended to really like order, and would get really upset if the schedule was changed on them suddenly, even something the other kids thought was a good surprise. So there was a lot of sequencing explanations.

    • They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know (thanks to 18 years of my son), but they did offer more to the class, like difficulty with social skills, reading body language, and being able to remember stuff more easily. I think the students found it interesting to hear about it straight from the autists’ mouths, so to speak.