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June 1998

When the Best Thing About
Finishing School Is
"No More Teasers"

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Teachers Need Training to Help Students With Autism

Jennifer’s kindergarten teacher dreads circle time because she knows Jennifer will sit screaming and pinch or pull the hair of anyone who comes too close. Fifteen-year-old Matthew bursts into tears because two students happen to be standing in front of his locker. A classmate tells nine-year-old Mary to go swimming in a mud puddle in the school yard. She does and is completely bewildered when the children laugh.

Purpball.gif (183 bytes) Autism-Spectrum Disorder

By Elizabeth Starr

Joe is an articulate young man who just graduated from high school. He says the best thing about finishing school is "no more teasers." Like Jennifer, Matthew and Mary, he has autism.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) who have intellectual abilities and perhaps even special skills (as in the movie Rain Man) are placed in the regular classroom in most school systems in Ontario. The problems in communication, social skills, and repetitive and stereotyped behaviours experienced by many of these children can be overwhelming.

These students have special needs. It’s just that these needs are more subtle than those of more severely-affected children. Teachers may be unaware of them because these students do well in so many areas and may consider a high-functioning student with autism as eccentric or odd, and not make any adaptations.

If these students demonstrate peculiar or unacceptable behaviour, however, they may be punished rather than the behaviour being seen and understood as part of the disability. In some cases their behaviour becomes so extreme the child is suspended – no solution for anyone.


Contrary to popular belief, autism-spectrum disorders are not rare. Susan Bryson, an autism authority at York University, reports some estimates place the incidence of such disorders as high as one or two per thousand.

It’s only a matter of time before a teacher has a student with autism or a related difficulty. When that happens, the teacher will have to know enough about these disorders to provide an appropriate education.

It’s easy to misunderstand the unique constellation of behaviours involved in autism-spectrum disorders, as teachers can hold the same misconceptions as the general public.

At a recent workshop, a teacher told me about a 17-year-old student with autism who had no effective means of communication. The student’s aggressive behaviour has become a safety issue and he is about to be suspended. Suspension will not teach him appropriate methods of achieving his goals. He is, in essence, being suspended because of his disability.

What’s triggering this aggressive behaviour? Is it a flickering fluorescent light or a hum to which he’s particularly sensitive? Is he not getting enough sleep, or missing breakfast? Does he understand what he’s being asked to do? Or has he just learned that his outbursts help him escape tasks he doesn’t like?

If the reasons for his behaviour had been determined early in his school career and his teachers had been able to work out an effective means of communicating with him, his teachers and fellow students would most likely have no reason to fear him.

Recognizing that students with autism have special needs is one thing. But teachers also have to understand exactly what those changing special needs are. They have to know how to adapt the environment and accommodate those needs.

Our mandate as educators is to meet the needs of all the students in our classrooms to the best of our ability. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough knowledge about people with autism-spectrum disorders.


This lack of knowledge is particularly frustrating for parents, who too often find themselves filling the role of expert, explaining autism and their child’s behaviour and needs to the teachers each year.

They would like the teachers to be able to explain aspects of autism and suggest teaching styles and strategies to them.

As one father said to me, "Parents are constantly put in the position of having to explain to the professionals the nature of their children’s disorder and of having to answer the question ‘What do you want from us?’ None of the parents I know would want to give up the right to determine what is best, but it would be nice to have some more equal partners on the team."

This sentiment is repeated daily by many parents of children with autism. Even if a classroom placement works well for a student with autism, parents continually worry about the next year. Every parent has this concern of course, but for the parent of a child with autism it is greatly magnified.

Take the experience of one family. Although Judith and Mark were very satisfied with the program their high-functioning autistic son received in junior and senior kindergarten, Grade 1 proved to be extremely difficult. Their son’s teacher did not know about autism, was unwilling to learn, and did not want James in her class. She did learn what situations would upset James and trigger tantrums and aggressive behaviour, and she set up such provoking situations to prove that a regular classroom teacher was unable to cope with James. His behaviour deteriorated and at the age of six he was threatened with expulsion.

The teacher was successful in securing a teacher assistant for James, but now his parents worry about his potential over-dependence on the aide. Had the teacher been knowledgeable about and receptive to his needs, no aide would have been needed.

The family moved to ensure their son’s placement in a more receptive school. Now in Grade 2, James is doing well, thanks to his teacher’s willingness to learn about autism, to try different techniques and to communicate constantly with the parents in an effective team approach.


The need for teacher education is obvious. The Ministry of Education and Training does have a Special Education Additional Qualification elective course, The Autistic Pupil. However, this course does not seem to have ever been offered at any faculty of education in Ontario until now, despite existing since at least 1987.

During the fall 1997 term I taught The Autistic Pupil at the University of Windsor for the first time. The course examines the nature of autism and strategies for curriculum planning and implementation. The emphasis is on ecological, functional, and age-appropriate assessment and programming. The major course requirement involves a practicum allowing hands-on experience working with students with autism, their teachers and parents and in developing a functional education plan for a specified area.

All the teachers taking the course recognized the need for specialized knowledge. Some enrolled because they had a student with autism but were at a loss as to how to cope. Others knew they were going to have a child with an autism-spectrum disorder in the coming year and wanted to be prepared. Some took the course out of an interest in autism, knowing that, in time, they will have a student with autism in their class.

As many of the teachers discovered, the skills they learned in the course are applicable for teaching many children with communication, learning and behaviour problems, not just those with autism.

The support of school boards, schools, parents, the Windsor-Essex chapter of Autism Society Ontario and other local organizations has been essential in making the vital practicum component of the course feasible. Their enthusiastic co-operation reflects the urgency these families feel and their commitment to helping teachers learn about autism.

Teachers realize how hard it is to ensure that there are "no more teasers" in our schools. But if students with autism-spectrum disorders are going to receive appropriate, publicly-funded education, teachers must have the opportunity to learn about these disorders and how to provide educationally relevant programs for students who have them.

Elizabeth Starr is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers and an assistant professor at the University of Windsor, where she teaches special education and educational psychology. She has taught students with moderate intellectual disabilities in Alberta and completed a post-doctorate fellowship in autism research in London, England. She can be reached at estarr@server.uwindsor.ca 

Autism-Spectrum Disorder

Autism-spectrum disorder is a collective term used to describe individuals diagnosed as having either autism, high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome.

Autism is a severe life-long disability that typically occurs in the first three years. This is the severest form of autism-spectrum disorder. Individuals with autism have severe and pervasive impairments in communication and reciprocal social interaction skills.

Approximately 50 per cent fail to develop speech and in those who do, a marked impairment in many aspects of language is evident. They also demonstrate a markedly restricted repertoire of behaviour and may have stereotyped and repetitive mannerisms such as hand or finger flapping. About 75 per cent also have mental retardation and approximately one-third of those with autism develop epilepsy by adolescence.

The term High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is often used synonymously with Asperger’s Syndrome. Individuals with these disorders have significant autistic types of impairments in the social and behaviour realms, but do not demonstrate any cognitive or language delay. However, severe impairments in the use of language are often evident.

Among the features which may indicate an autism-spectrum disorder in a child are:

  • inflexible adherence to specific, non-functional routines or rituals
  • insistence on sameness in the environment and extreme agitation with trivial changes in the environment
  • lack of eye contact
  • use of repetitive or idiosyncratic language, for example, "hot rain" for steam
  • inability to initiate or sustain a conversation
  • inability to develop friendships
  • intense preoccupation with a very narrow topic of interest, for example, makes of cars
  • preoccupation with parts of objects, for example, spinning the wheels of a toy car
  • lack of spontaneous imaginative play
  • marked impairment in the use of facial expression, body posture and other non-verbal behaviours that help to regulate social interaction
  • stereotyped body movements, for example, spinning, rocking, hand flicking
  • over or under-reaction to noises, touch or visual stimuli
  • extreme attachment to unusual objects, for example, a vacuum cleaner.

Students with autism-spectrum disorders are most successful when a highly-structured and predictable environment is provided. Since many of these students experience auditory processing difficulties, the use of concrete visual supports for all aspects of instruction is immeasurably helpful – for example individual pictorial timetables, pictures used to form a "list" of things a student must remember to take home, labelling of the student’s belongings, use of photos to demonstrate steps in an activity, building in flexibility by visually showing any changes to the timetable (letting the student substitute the picture of one activity for another).

This kind of structure acts as a prosthetic device for students with autism-spectrum disorders just as eyeglasses are a prosthetic device for those who need them. Structure assists students with autism-spectrum disorders by providing clear, understandable information ahead of time. It helps them predict what will happen and provides clear, visual, non-transient information about change.

These web sites provide a good introduction to autism and suggestions for teachers: