Most special needs educators would love to be able to say, “This is how you teach a student with autism.”
But they can’t. The best a teacher can do is say, “This is how I teach THIS student with autism.” And even that may vary from day to day, depending on more factors than most people would want to keep track of on a daily basis.
Though there are of course some constants upon which a teacher may rely, each student in Greenville Public Schools’ autism program presents a unique set of challenges. Some students in the program have almost no communication skills; others evince symptoms so subtle that there’s a real danger they may be overlooked altogether.
According to Michelle Blaszcynski, principal of Lincoln Heights Elementary School, which serves several autistic students, teaching techniques with regard to autistic students have evolved far beyond what they were even a dozen years ago.
Whereas once a student with autism might be consigned to an education separate from mainstream students, modern teaching techniques recommend incorporating that student into daily school life whenever and wherever possible.
“We try to integrate the students in the regular ed classroom and have as much integration as possible,” Blaszcynski said.
Not only does this help the special needs student to feel more accepted, it gives the mainstream students a chance to better understand the needs of others. These two factors can have an immensely positive impact on both groups, Blaszcynski contends.
Integration is simply one of several techniques used to reach students with autism, however. According to the Baldwin Heights Elementary School’s list of “guiding principles” for working with autistic students, the following precepts hold true and should be considered in most cases:
• Don’t fight the autism — use the autism.
• Behavior is communication — what is the student trying to tell us?
• Look for what is blocking the making of positive choices.
• An adult “backing off” is not giving in.
• Less is more. Reduce verbal and rely more on pictures.
• Organize the school setting around rules and schedules.
• Prepare in advance for changes in schedule or expectations.
Using these maxims, teachers of autistic children are able to concentrate more on academic issues and less on social problems.
According to Director of Student Services Linda VanHouten, it is exactly this sort of loosely regimented thinking that allows teachers to reach students with autism far more effectively than was possible in the past. Also, ongoing scientific advances and sociological studies provide new data on a regular basis.
“We just know so much more now about what makes these kids tick,” VanHouten said. “They don’t really know the medical cause (of autism) but there are clues as to why these kids behave as they do, and that helps us develop plans to make them more successful.
“Many of our staff went through intensive training to help them identify and deal with the treatment of autism.”
To facilitate this special training, Greenville Public Schools have coupled with the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) program offered by Grand Valley State University. It was there that many staffers developed the skills needed to successfully educate autistic students and meet their special needs.
Teachers and para-professionals also tapped into a program called Rethink Autism, which — according to VanHouten — helps educators identify autism in students.
“It helps us identify autism and figure out the best direction we can go in for each student,” VanHouten said. “The program even provides video training for us. We’ve come a long way in knowing what to do.”
The evidence of these advances is no further away than observing any local autism classroom. In place of the chaos that was all too common in years past, there is order. Students are learning; learning to read, to write, to deal with the personality quirks endemic in autism.
Autistic students are no longer expected to conform to ideals beyond their ability. No “round pegs” are pounded into “square holes.” Instead, each student is treated as an individual, respected, and taught to develop to the best of his or her ability.
“It is not the student’s job to fit our mold,” said Blaszcynski. “It is our job to customize to whatever the student needs, academically, behaviorally, emotionally and socially. That’s our job in public education.”