Sudipa De, a PGDE student teacher at the University of Strathclyde, reflects on the recent Autism, Friendly Classroom seminar from Charlene Tate of Scottish Autism.
“It’s like we have big secrets: we are in it, they are not!” to quote Charlene Tait from her recent SATE seminar: The Autism Friendly English Classroom. Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering and stressful for autistic children. The ideas presented in the seminar demonstrated Charlene’s deep understanding of classroom management with an insight to the world of youngsters under the spectrum with Autism.
As prospective English teachers, the most important attribute we should possess towards people with autism is empathy. Autistic students have a very poor sense of themselves, and need a lot of reassurance and confirmation of their performance. It is our responsibility as educators to support them in having a voice and enable these young people through their journey in life.
Qualitative research shows that the developmental profile of children with autism is rather spiky and inconsistent in comparison to their fellow counterparts. This is a human condition which clearly explains their difficulties with understanding receptive language, processing instructions and poor sequential memory. They are easily prone to distractions and have delayed sensory processing and lack skills in perception. Their developmental differences make them think, feel, view and react to the world differently. Their perspective of the world is very honest, consistent and truthful – and sometimes appears to be rude and arrogant to others! Often autistic pupils are unable to organize or put limits to their own behaviour or acknowledge the rules of the society. To help us understand such complex issues Charlene advises the use of appropriate language.The language used in the playground with peers is different to the language used in class or with family. Similarly, the language we use in a seminar is different to the language we would use with our colleagues in pubs! Autistic pupils are unable to differentiate it. They struggle to adapt or model their actions and communication according to the demands of the situation.
As we are aiming to achieve successful learning experiences within the classroom environment, we need to shift our thinking from behavioural management of autistic children to stress reduction. It may appear on the exterior that the students are calm, pacified and relaxed. However, the unpredictability of when something different might happen can be very challenging for autistic students. Consequently, they often choose to stay with familiar activities and resist learning new routines. Repetitive, rigid behaviours are signs of stress overwhelming them. Scheduling daily or weekly events lessens the anxiety level and outlines a framework of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ for them, helping with transitioning independently between activities.
English is difficult for these children and we need to acknowledge it. Pronouns like she, he, you, we, and I, or concepts of positional language can be really difficult to comprehend. To overcome such barriers in understanding, visual representation of the context by sequencing cue cards to build up a story line; providing a picture/word dictionary would be helpful. Using emotion cards displaying abstract concepts of happiness, fear, remorse, excitement, and anger can help with better understanding of emotions.
A myth prevails that autistic children suffer from lack of imagination. This is not necessarily so .They suffer from contextual blindness, which is their inability to see the wider picture and think logically. As an example, Charlene refers to a scene in the movie Rain Man where Raymond misinterprets the sign “Don’t walk” and stops in the middle of the intersection. His mind doesn’t understand that “Don’t walk” can also mean ‘hurry up’ if he is halfway through the crossing.
For better understanding of novels or drama, films can be helpful sometimes as it helps the students to visualise the characters. Another interesting approach may be to ask them to create or present a paper cut out of the characters they think resembles them best. Graphic representation, creating online work space, use of speech bubbles with basic introductory sentences such as “The author says….” I know this because…”or The illustrator says….”can help in understanding. Charlene directed us to The Autism Tool Box for further practical approaches and practice grids.
Touching on perfectionism Charlene advise us, “be imperfect yourself”, to enable the pupils feel that it is ok to make mistakes! It’s all about modelling the task set to get it right for every child.
My participation in the seminar has consolidated my learning experiences of working with autistic kids over the last four years. Charlene’s relaxed, friendly and interactive approach combined with her video clips of interviews from autistic pupils generated a lot of productive discussions. Our fantastic hosts at Marr College – despite their other professional commitments – were very welcoming too.