Teachers Need Training to Help Students
Jennifers 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.
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 Aspergers 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. Its 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.
MOST TEACHERS WILL HAVE
A STUDENT WITH AUTISM
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.
Its 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.
Its 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 students
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.
Whats triggering this aggressive behaviour? Is it a
flickering fluorescent light or a hum to which hes particularly sensitive? Is he not
getting enough sleep, or missing breakfast? Does he understand what hes being asked
to do? Or has he just learned that his outbursts help him escape tasks he doesnt
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 dont have
enough knowledge about people with autism-spectrum disorders.
PARENTS AS EXPERTS
This lack of knowledge is particularly frustrating for
parents, who too often find themselves filling the role of expert, explaining autism and
their childs 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 childrens
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 sons
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
The family moved to ensure their sons placement in a
more receptive school. Now in Grade 2, James is doing well, thanks to his teachers
willingness to learn about autism, to try different techniques and to communicate
constantly with the parents in an effective team approach.
TEACHERS NEED EDUCATION
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 email@example.com
Autism-spectrum disorder is a collective
term used to describe individuals diagnosed as having either autism, high-functioning
autism, or Aspergers 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 Aspergers 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
- 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,
- over or under-reaction to noises, touch or visual stimuli
- extreme attachment to unusual objects, for example, a vacuum
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 students 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: