A condition that has always intrigued me is Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Every year of my more-than-a-decade-long teaching career has seen at least one student with ASD, diagnosed or undiagnosed, in my class. Some of my fondest memories, as well as my most terrifying, involve direct experiences with these children.
What used to be polarised into two separate conditions, namely Autism or Asperger’s, is now recognised as two ends of a very wide spectrum that represents a group of people whose brains are wired differently to their neurotypical peers.
This difference in wiring commonly causes these students to encounter difficulties with social communication, emotional regulation, inferential and abstract language, sensory stimuli, empathy, and generalisation and transference of skills across contexts.
To learners with ASD, there is a “hidden curriculum” that must be uncovered when communicating in social situations; a kind of “social algebra” that must be learnt cognitively rather than intuitively.
40% of young people with ASD suffer from depression, and this rises to 70% when they reach adulthood. This can be caused by anxieties related to themselves (why am I different, why don’t I get it) and to the world (why is everything so confusing, why don’t people just say what they mean, etc.)
Often adults with ASD rely on emotional suppression (ie hiding the emotion) rather than employing emotional reappraisal (ie rethinking a situation.) and this all too commonly leads to suicidal thoughts and actions.
Traditionally, teachers have tried to eliminate the behaviours that result from a student with ASD not coping in the classroom. One way that this is achieved is by analysing the frequency of behaviours to notice any patterns and doing a functional behaviour assessment to guess the motives for the behaviour (remembering that all behaviour is communication).
Conversations are also had with students to see if they can explain why they are upset or anxious or angry. As you can imagine, many times they don’t know, or can’t express, what is going on in their brains. Making it very difficult for teaching teams to “fix”.
A new approach is looking at what skills may be lagging on a case-by-case basis, and then designing learning experiences around the skills to be taught (and, of course, capitalising on the student’s strengths too!)
For example, if a student lacks self-esteem and is constantly ashamed/angry of/at themselves, we might say that they are lacking the skill of positive self-talk. Teachers can then use comic strip conversations, social stories or cognitive picture rehearsal, all of which use pictures with thought and speech bubbles to model positive self-talk.
A cognitive picture rehearsal may look like this:
Picture one: Here I am doing Maths. Maths is hard.
Picture two: Here I am thinking that I’m bad at Maths, and not getting my work done. That makes me mad and I never want to do Maths again.
Picture three: Here I am closing my eyes and taking slow, deep breaths.
Picture four: Here I am telling myself that I can be good at Maths if I try.
Picture five: Here I am trying a strategy my teacher taught me, and asking her for help if that strategy doesn’t work.
Picture six: Here I am trying another strategy and being happy because it worked!
In all mainstream classrooms, there will be children with differences. Our job is to help them to be their best selves, and for everyone else to become better in the process.
As we learn more and more about complex and mystifying neurodevelopmental conditions, our approaches to “lighting the way” for students get more differentiated https://ateacherislikeacandle.wordpress.com/2020/07/12/candle-differentiation/, informed and ultimately more effective. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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