ASD Now, and Forever:   A View from the Classroom

Guest post by Robert Luis Rabello


In my nearly three decades of teaching, I have had the honor of working with many students whose approach to learning differs significantly when compared to mine.  Teaching students in areas where I have also struggled is far easier than helping young people develop skills that came quickly or naturally to me, as necessity has driven me to collect many different processes and approaches to mathematics, whereas reading and writing never required much effort on my part.

Words flow from my consciousness like a massive river plunging over a cliff. I think in words. I can hear them in my head before I speak, while I write, and in my imagination. Words may be closely associated with imagery, but the words always rise to the forefront of my consciousness.

But what happens when one of my students is unable to experience the world in a similar way? How can I effectively approach a child who tells me that the wondrous things he imagines can’t be expressed in language? That reality seems completely alien to me.

What Does Autism Look Like in a Classroom?

Autism is a spectrum. Autistic people who are completely non-verbal fall along a continuum that also includes articulate people capable of logical reasoning to the extent that they may look and sound very much like other students. However, autism is not a condition that people grow out of as they age. The way the ASD brain works will always remain different, and because of this, notable differences between autistic students and their neurotypical classmates require accommodation for successful learning.

First, autistic children exhibit socially maladroit characteristics. They do not often grasp how their behavior looks to other people. Many will speak without making eye contact, or when they do make eye contact, it tends to be very brief. My ASD students frequently exhibit an obsessive need to be right, to win at every competitive activity, and to act impulsively. They will grow disproportionately angry under circumstances in which a neurotypical child might be only mildly upset. The social dysfunction of autistic children creates friction with other students, particularly classmates who are also on the ASD spectrum.

Short attention spans, unusual reactions to sensory input (such as loud noise or the aroma of someone else’s lunch), extreme impulsivity and aggression may also be manifest. As the students enter puberty, these traits amplify the physical changes of transitioning into an adult’s body. An autistic young man’s size can be intimidating to others, yet he will seldom perceive his impulsive or aggressive behavior as problematic. This is why monitoring and mentoring are critical components in the education plans for autistic students.

One young man who is currently in my high school class has great difficulty sleeping at night. He will often doze off in the middle of a lesson and sleep so soundly, it can be hard to awaken him. Medication can make this problem worse.  Thus, lethargy is not necessarily indicative of student irresponsibility – though staying up to play video games or read a book can certainly contribute. For this reason, regular and honest communication with the parents or guardians is essential.

ASD students usually struggle with empathy, which can make them appear cold or uncaring to others. Last year, when a family lost their mother to cancer, one of our autistic students said, “So what? Why should I care about someone else’s mother?” He believed his response was completely rational – and it is hard to argue that an unrelated individual should experience sorrow over the loss of someone else’s parent, when death is a normal part of everyone’s life cycle – yet the insensitive remark and the cavalier attitude he maintained about grieving irritated his classmates.

Perspectives on School Discipline

The need to navigate a baffling minefield of social expectations creates heightened tension and stirs exhaustion among my ASD students. Often, I see them slip into either anger or anxiety, but neither approach is very helpful. One young woman I know explained that in social situations, “everything I do requires 10 steps for me.” She has to mentally process every thought, every action, every move, where neurotypical people function subconsciously and easily. Because of this, a punitive response by school staff to the social transgressions of ASD children is far more likely to amplify frustration than resulting in desired attitudinal and behavioral change.

Their inability to understand a perspective that differs from their own often leads autistic children to believe that they are never at fault for inappropriate behavior. When an autistic child thoughtlessly invades another’s personal space or touches private body parts (sometimes a problem with young men entering puberty who are fascinated by their blossoming female classmates), they may loudly proclaim their innocence. When they utter insensitive comments, knock something off someone else’s desk, or escalate conflicts with other students in a manner completely disproportionate to the provocation, their confusion is sincere. ASD students are not necessarily doing these things with the intention of creating disharmony. They simply do not comprehend the disruptive nature of their actions.

Every incident of this kind represents an opportunity to learn the importance of how others perceive the behavior. The goal of school discipline must remain focused on educating autistic students so they can increase their social functionality and independence. Instilling self-regulation requires great care, patience and persistence. Rules must be clear, direct, and consequences or rewards immediate. Autistic children should never experience discipline when their emotions are high, as the association with punishment instills fear, which only makes the process of social navigation worse. Caregivers and teachers should make every effort to deal with maladaptive behavior calmly, gently, and above all, with great consistency.

 Some autistic students respond well to rewards for positive interaction, as the cause / effect nature of the outcome is easily recognized. However, as the social environment becomes increasingly complex, and as the autistic student encounters a greater variety of personalities and situations, rewards may no longer represent an appropriate response. Helping ASD children become socially successful requires great patience and persistence. Coaching, modeling, role-playing and gentle exhortation over the long term will gradually produce the desired outcome in most autistic people.

Adaptations for Assignments

Because ASD students often struggle with abstractions explained in words, isolating ideas and illustrating them visually represents a best practice. Teaching numeracy concepts using manipulatives should address the need for autistic students to develop strong understanding. This is crucial, as pattern recognition tends to be strong among ASD students, and serves as a foundation for future knowledge. A young man in my classroom explained that he visualizes new ideas presented in class, linking them to previous understanding until the novel concept “very quickly becomes second nature.” He relates learning to an adaptation along the lines of a hermit crab rapidly habituating to a new shell.

It is important to support verbal information with visuals and to provide flexibility with respect to completion dates.  Large projects should be broken into discreet steps. A flow chart that outlines each stage of the project will help the ASD student avoid feeling overwhelmed by the task. Along these lines, breaking long stretches of class time devoted to a particular task into smaller sections is also helpful. All of these techniques represent best practices among expert teachers, so if you’re an educator who is already doing these things, your classroom is well-equipped for ASD students to succeed.

Teachers and parents need to understand that autism does not prevent children from gaining a quality education. In truth, many autistic people are brilliant, and a well-run classroom should be a safe place for any student – including those with ASD – to learn.  Excellent lesson design and sensitivity to student needs will enhance every child’s opportunity to gain knowledge and understanding of how our world works.

Implications for Adulthood

In British Columbia, where I live, young people with ASD enjoy considerable support in terms of funding from the government and resources in the classroom. Outside of the education context, these supports vanish, leaving parents to guide their ASD children through the dark jungle of social interaction on their own, until the child has reached the age of majority. At that time, community living and support from counselors is available, but the application paperwork is intense and high demand creates long waiting lists. The province, as the governmental agency funding this program, husbands its resources carefully.

Many autistic adults struggle to find work and remain employed, as the soft skills of interpersonal relations that employers presume exist in neurotypical adults are not present in those with autism. Being unintentionally rude or insensitive to customers, treating fellow employees in an objective manner, struggling to follow non-concrete instruction, along with the need to be right all the time, can make it very difficult for an ASD adult to sustain gainful employment. In the social realm, autistic men who fail to understand consent can come across as creepy stalkers to women.

While no amount of understanding and compassion excuses inappropriate behavior, the rule-governed methods that teachers employ in the classroom will not work effectively without practice in implementing said rules outside of school. For this reason, governments seeking to encourage a peaceful, sensitive and orderly society should invest in ASD counselors and support for their autistic citizens. In an age of fiscal austerity, where an economic cost / benefit analysis governs the effectiveness of social programs, many governments reject such costly approaches. That leaves the parents of ASD children to cope with the reality that autism is a lifelong condition requiring counsel and assistance. Schools can help ASD students establish a strong foundation for social success, but the ultimate responsibility for guiding an autistic child through life will rest on the shoulders of his or her parents.