Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can develop skills at a different rate, and they may acquire them in a different order than their peers. This is because the disorder affects the way we interpret and communicate information. A learner with ASD may not be responsive, even when called by name, and they may not use eye contact and appropriate gestures when speaking. They may have difficulty focusing, staying attentive, organizing information, making inferences, and maintaining emotional control. These challenges can create severe barriers in a child’s educational journey — but they don’t have to.
As a teacher — and especially as a person of faith — you have an obligation to help learners reach their full potential. There have been recent pedagogical advancements in the way we teach students with autism. Here’s what you need to know in order to teach students with autism in an effective and compassionate way:
A Stronger Focus on Critical Analysis
In an age when false information runs rampant on the internet, the ability to evaluate information is integral. Because students with ASD already may have difficulties making inferences, false or dated information can be a serious complication. This point was highlighted by Dr. Erin Rotheram-Fuller, an educator for instruction programs for autism spectrum disorders at Arizona State University: “A focus … in our program is to weed out the misinformation — making students become more critical about what they’re reading.”
Make media literacy a major focus of your classroom. The four dimensions of critical evaluation are relevance, accuracy, bias, and reliability. Hold workshops where you have students evaluate sources collaboratively as a class, then have them work independently or in pairs. Pupils with ASD may benefit from working with peers. A primary source analysis tool worksheet can provide structure to this process. Afterwards, discuss your findings as a group. This is a great way of reinforcing the behavior needed to perform independent research in the digital age.
Encouraging Compassion From Peers
Collaboration is an essential part of effective instruction. Unfortunately, autism often leads to social isolation in children and teenagers, and isolation can be a serious hindrance to learning. Classroom groups provide students an opportunity to teach and learn from their peers, gaining knowledge of and tolerance for different perspectives. This is a systemic problem, with one in three students with autism experiencing social isolation. How can you do your part to alleviate this problem? Encourage compassion from neurotypical peers.
A key part of socialization is learning to be compassionate and sensitive to the needs of those who have developmental disorders. Without singling them out, focus on the strengths of students who have ASD. Consider using the “buddy system”, pairing students together on a weekly basis, or other types of peer-to-peer program to widen students’ social circles and promote inclusion. Through these methods, you can encourage greater collaboration and reduce the risk of social isolation for those with ASD.
Keep a Pulse on Developments in Accessibility
An educator is never truly “finished” with professional development. Many higher education campuses are committed to ensuring a greater access to education for those with ASD, and as a result, new approaches are conceived and tested each year. For example, Faulkner University is pooling resources with Texas Tech University to bring an autism center to their campus by 2019. As a result of this venture, new approaches to teaching individuals with developmental disorders will be created and practiced. Keep up-to-date with these advancements and research findings in order to inform your own teaching methods.
As the uptick in the prevalence of developmental disabilities in young generations in the US continues, educators will need to adapt to meet their needs. It is the professional and moral duty of every teacher to their part to offer an equitable, accessible education.