Are You Prepared for Neurodiversity in Your Classroom?
I became a better teacher when working with Asperger's and Autistic Spectrum students. I learned that they are brilliant children that see the world through different lenses, and can add so much to society.
Unfortunately, society hasn't been educated about children with Aspergers. However, there is a new movement bringing attention to their uniqueness through television and movies. I will share what I have learned about teaching children that behave differently to create a positive and effective classroom.
I remember during training on Asperger's Syndrome the surprising backlash it created amongst the teachers. Some teachers felt it wasn't up to them to accommodate these children, that these children simply need to comply with their rules. What the instructor neglected to share with us is that many of our most incredible innovations came from people on the Autistic Spectrum.
Having taught many children with Asperger's over the years, I knew we needed to learn as much as we could about neurodiversity. I also knew it wasn't about just training the teachers, it was also about creating a collaborative atmosphere for parents with Asperger/Autistic children.
What is Asperger's Syndrome?
It is defined as a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the ability to interact and communicate with people effectively. Asperger's are highly functioning people on the Autistic Spectrum. Whereas, children with Autism may be unable to communicate and/or have difficulty with gross-motor skills. Asperger's children typically have a non-inflectional tone in their speech and have awkward mobility.
Asperger's children typically demonstrate the following behaviors:
social interactions are awkward
Inability to perceive gestures
Difficulty in recognizing others feelings
Difficulty in understanding humor
Significant difficulty with non-verbal movement and behaviors, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, awkward or clumsy body postures and gestures
Facts About Asperger's Syndrome:
One in fifty nine children in the United States has autistic spectrum disorder.
Diagnosis doesn't require lab testing or imaging.
There are no known cure, or treatments available
Can last several years or be lifelong
(More information can be found in resources below)
Creating a Classroom Environment for These Students
A good example of the characteristics of Asperger's can be seen in the following television shows. The actor, Freddie Highmore, portrays a doctor with Autism and Savant Syndrome in ABC's, The Good Doctor, and Jim Parson's character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper in CBS's The Big Bang theory portrays a Theoretical Physicist with quirky behaviors.
1.) Begin With Their Peers
I had to teach my students why people with Asperger's and Autism do things differently than the typical population in school. This leads to a classroom that supports their peers rather than shun them. However, this must be done while the student is present, so they can share how they feel in certain situations, and they hear how their peers can help them adjust to noises, transitions and inappropriate behavior.
This class discussion can be about things we do that may make others feel uncomfortable, as an example. Some children can ignore loud noises, but for the Asperger's child, this same noise puts them off task. Having various students share how disruptions make them feel, being sure to include your Asperger's students, as well, the students then can consider alternative ways to handle noise or disruptions.
Jonathan*, one of my previous students, was a sweet child, but he didn't realize that he stood too close to his friends, and it bothered them. In order for the class to learn boundaries, we had open conversations about how to tell what we liked and what we needed.
Example; "Jonathan, I want to hear your story, but I need you to stand farther away from my face," this teaches everyone to respect each others' needs to make them feel comfortable. The "I want... but I need..." phrases can be used for most situations.
It also helped that I taught the students about the neurophysiology of the brain. Once they had the basics of how their minds worked under stress and how to calm their brains, they had more compassion for classmates with different tolerance levels than they did.
2.) Share Lesson Plans with Parents
If the child was previously diagnosed, I would meet with the parents about alternative homework, alternative projects, behavior modifications and in-school support. This takes some planning, but once it is established, it can create a close rapport with these families and unexpected eruptions in the classroom less stressful.
I send home a copy of my lesson plans with the student. Yes, plans change, but it keeps the parents informed on what may be coming up, as well as considerations for adapting the lessons for their child.
Homework is modified to benefit the students at home. With our Asperger's students, I'd rather see them practicing with siblings or parents on how to be introduced to people, share toys, converse in small-talk, be compassionate, than to memorize facts and figures.
I find out what the child's passions are since most Asperger's children have an obsession with a particular topic. Once we can find the carrot, projects and homework can then be adapted to their interests.
For example, one of my student's was obsessed with Dinosaurs, and the class was learning about geography at that time, so I had him work on mapping skills of the 20 top famous archeological fossils finds around the world. Simple adaptations can bring meaningful learning for the challenged child, and make for a happier classroom.
3.) Allow Flexibility with Curriculum and Assessments
This was such an important paradigm shift when it came to my Asperger's students. We can't expect them to think or act in the same manner as their peers. Consequently, I had to properly evaluate what these children were learning, then realizing too, they might not be able to demonstrate their abilities like their peers.
Learning their strengths and weaknesses in their learning style, also made me more aware of my own teaching style. I had to take into consideration their difficulty in regulating stress, such as informing them of a Vocabulary test or changing the class routine for the day. In these situations, most Asperger's children do not do well with change. I had to have written directions, as well as visual directions which isn't as easy to recreate. Asking my Asperger's students to repeat what I was asking of them is a common way to find if they understand what they are to do.
I had to put myself in their shoes. How can I prove that I understand something without assessing in the traditional sense? As an example, if an Asperger's student felt overwhelmed with a 30 question Math test, could I reduce the number of questions or give the test over a few days? Adapting to their needs helps them feel successful, and you can get a more accurate assessment of their learning.
Oral quizzes became a quick and easy way to assess comprehension and understanding of concepts. Most curriculum assessments can be completed by allowing the students to use art and design as a form of assessment. The student could create a poster, diorama, model or diagram including the necessary content with a minimal writing assignment attached.
Ironically, many of our universities are pulling away from standard testing to prove a student's performance in the classroom. When I started implementing these innovative ways to test understanding, I realized it made my job easier, as well as making the students less stressed. Think of how we are evaluated as teachers. We don't sit down with a multiple choice test each year. We prove our knowledge through collaboration, outcome based data and a portfolio of work.
4.) Create a Calming Environment
Creating a room where students can go to read or write without distraction creates an atmosphere of mutual respect. I believe if you do for one student, you do for all, with only a few exceptions which we discuss in class.
Tools I use to help students self-regulate their learning.
Study Carousels- cardboard or wood can be put up around desks to create a less visually distracting learning area. My Asperger students would often grab a portable carousel to use around their desk during center rotations or independent writing. This lessened the visual distractions that can occur when children are working independently.
Padded Headphones- I was able to round up broken headsets, such as the ones that come with tape recorders that no longer worked, that provided a quieting effect for the child.
Plants- yes, plants. Not only do plants soften the room, making it more inviting, it helps air quality. I used the maintenance of the plants as jobs for my Classroom Economics. Many Aspergers children loved learning the job of a Horticulturalist.
Fish- You'll have to decide if your classroom can handle a small aquarium. I used the one pictured above for many years. even raffling off the opportunity for students to take home "Charlie" or "Fidget" at the end of the year. Betta fish are incredibly easy to care for especially using the aqua plants that help to aerate the bowl or aquarium. Some teachers go bigger and get the rectangular kind that has a heater and the little scuba diver, but I wanted to keep it simple. My Asperger's students loved earning time to visit our class fish. It was also a very calming place for them to recenter themselves. One of my Asperger's student's would stare at our fish while I was doing a read aloud. I was amazed how he never lost track of what I was reading as he stared at the fish. I also provided Post-It notes for students to ask questions they had about fish. Students would earn Classroom Economic money for correctly researching the answers. Many students also enjoyed being our classroom Marine Biologist for their job.
Flexible Seating- Now more than ever do I appreciate being able to sit or stand when I work. After recovering from an automobile accident, I have to move around more than I used to. This, of course was essential for me, but Asperger's students also need to be able to have the flexibility to sit or stand when their body can no longer remain still. Parents will be the first ones to tell you at the beginning of the school year whether their child has issues with standing or sitting still for long periods of time. Often times, I would allow my Asperger's students to choose their own seating as long as it would not disturb others. I would set up boundaries, and practiced how to move without disturbing others. I typically allowed the whole class to do flexible seating within reason, especially when doing small-group or independent activities.
Mindfulness Stressed Base Reduction- Utilizing the latest research in mindfulness skills, I taught all of my students self-regulating skills to help them through various transitions and behaviors during the day. Meditation with breathing techniques, finger labyrinths, journaling, and mindful transitions helps students become more purposeful in their choices. Asperger's students thrive with routine and smooth transitions, so its important to keep a schedule up of the day easily visible.
Visual Schedules- Most teachers display their schedules for the day or week on their board. For the Asperger's student, this is crucial. They feel most secure in environments that don't change. Keeping them informed of any schedule changes helps them adapt easier to a new event or conflict. I learned that if I made them my "Administrative Assistants " and had them post the schedule on the board in the morings can help them visualize their day. I created laminated labels that had magnetic tape on the back. They would move the magnetized cards to their appropriate time slots. Explaining to them why a change occurred in their daily schedule helps them learn about impermanence and flexibility, with which they often struggle.
Classroom Buddies- this was established in the beginning of the year during their neuroscience training. Students were given a list of behaviors to look for and then were taught how to intercede. Behaviors such as crying, sadness, anger, aloofness and even jealousy were role played. Then we discussed what that person may need when we recognize these behaviors. Often times, students would learn that giving the person a smile with a compassionate nod was all the student needed. Anger or violence should only be dealt with by an adult, not the student. Buddies would help each other with daily check-ins by asking each other how they were doing and practicing small-talk.
These are just a few of the things I learned to help our Asperger students adapt easier to the energy and chaos a classroom can create.
Neurodiversity is here to stay. Even now more than ever do we have to adapt to these changes in our classroom demographics. Learning various techniques in dealing with children that have alternative ways in understanding and learning, helps us to become better teachers for all students.
For more information about using neuroscience in the classroom, visit my Wisdom Warriors Academy website.
*names were changed to protect their identity
Autism Society- http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/aspergers-syndrome/
Take The Aspergers Quiz- http://aspergersquiz.com/
Recognizing Autism/Asperger's Syndrome in Movies and Television
The Good Doctor- https://abc.go.com/shows/the-good-doctor
The Big Bang Theory- https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_bang_theory/
Autism Society Facts and Statistics- http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/