Many techniques of general education are not effective when learning how to teach autistic children. Whether you are home schooling your child or working on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as part of a public or private school program, autistic children require special considerations.
People have three basic learning styles. Visual learners learn from reading or seeing a demonstration of a skill. Auditory learners learn best from lectures, spoken instructions, or even music. A kinesthetic learner finds that movement helps and that they learn faster, for example, if they imitate a demonstrated action rather than just observing it.
Most people use two or three of these learning styles. A particular person might, for example, learn best visually but can still learn effectively from auditory or kinesthetic lessons. Autistic kids, however, often focus on only one of these methods sometimes to the complete exclusion of the other two. An autistic child might get restless and start wandering around the classroom during a lecture because he doesn't understand that the lecture is the lesson. It's important to not just identify the behaviors but to understand the causes of them and employ successful teaching techniques.
There was a time that it was believed that many autistic kids simply couldn't learn. Today autism research, growing awareness and school experience have revealed clearly that teaching autistic children requires some modification in technique, but these students can not only learn but can usually learn in a typical general education class -- quite often that's a suitable learning environment for autistic kids. For more information and resources on educating special needs students in a regular class environment, see How To Understand Special Education Inclusion.
Here are some tips on teaching autistic children. None of these are ironclad rules as every autistic child responds to the environment differently. It will require experimentation and careful observation to see which of these is most effective.
- Determine which learning style best suits the child with autism, and emphasize that method of learning and communication. Taking the example of the child who is ignoring the lecture, if he were a visual learner you might show him his seat or a picture of a chair to help him understand it is time to sit down. If he were a kinesthetic learner, you might lead him over to his seat with light pressure on his shoulders.
- It is common for an autistic child to be unable to process multiple sensory inputs at the same time. For example, it may be impossible to process both visual and auditory input simultaneously. In this case, separate teaching into "channels" and focus on only one sense at a time.
- If the child has visual sensitivity, fluorescent lights or CRT computer screens might seem to flicker like strobe lights. Use incandescent or natural lighting from a window and use laptops or flat-panel computer screens.
- If the child has auditory sensitivity, a class bell, PA system, or even the teacher's voice could seem like someone is blasting an air horn. In a classroom, muffling the bell or PA system while still leaving them audible may help the student to stay focused. The teacher might need to speak more softly, especially when addressing the student directly. It may be possible to desensitize the child to a specific noise, such as a fire alarm, by giving them a recording of the noise that they can play at will. It is important that the child retain control of when the noise is played to allow desensitization to take place.
- Autistic kids often have trouble with generalization, which can affect the way they learn skills. When teaching a child to look both ways before crossing a street, it may be necessary to show them in several locations. If not, they may think they need to look only when crossing at that particular spot.
- This lack of generalization can apply to objects as well. For example, Hilde de Clereq from Belgium had a case of a boy who could use the toilet at home but wouldn't use toilets elsewhere. Eventually it was realized that the toilet at home had a black seat and the boy couldn't connect the concept of "toilet" to ones that had white seats. They were able to teach him to generalize by putting black tape on the seat at school then removing pieces of the tape over time. Eventually, he was able to generalize "toilet" to include white seats as well.
- Autistic children may fixate on something they enjoy, such as trains. Incorporating this fixation into their lessons by including stories of trains, math problems involving trains, and so on gives motivation to learn.
- It is common for an autistic kid to have trouble connecting two events even if they are very close together. For example, if teaching reading with flash cards, use cards with both the written word and the picture of the object on the same side of the card. If they are on different sides, the child may not understand that they represent the same idea.
These tips just scratch the surface of teaching autistic children. Whether the child is being home schooled or taught in a classroom, it is imperative that you work with an expert trained in teaching autistic children. That expert should be included in preparation of the child's education plan. Once the proper teaching techniques have been discovered, autistic children have gone on to college and graduate school. As a parent of an autistic child, taking the time to learn how your child learns gives the best prospects for future education.