Teaching Autistic Children

Any article with the title, "Teaching Children With Autism", is going to be a very, very long one! Even if I shorten the title to, "Teaching Children" you would be expecting a fairly lengthy read. The point is, with or without autism teaching a child follows the same parameters. All children learn what we teach them and this is true both in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, many parents (and I should hasten to add) teachers do not always recognise when this learning process is happening! I pride myself on building close relationships with the parents of the children in my class but even though my door says, "Head of Autism" the look of disbelief on their faces when I try to convince them that the fact that their child will only eat chocolate biscuits is not due to autism but that they have taught him that every time he has a tantrum this is what he gets. The resulting challenging behaviour when, hopefully, the parent decides that a diet of chocolate biscuits for a 5-year-old is not healthy, is nothing compared to the challenging behaviour that will occur when he is 15 years old! Then, the realisation, that the child has complete control is heart breaking.

The good news is that tackling challenging behaviour early is the first step towards teaching a child with autism. Before learning in the classroom can begin the child has to be ready to learn. By this I mean that certain behaviours have to be in place. Simple things like sitting, attention, keeping clothes on, handling toys or equipment appropriately etc are pre-requisites to "teaching" in an educational setting. I work with children who have no language, no social skills or inhibitions and are autistic with learning difficulties. Challenging behaviours come in all shapes and forms but, we approach all of them in the same way. We work on the, "First do this!" then "You can do that!". It begins from day one when we identify something that the child likes then we take it away! Yes, I do know how that sounds and I have tried to think of a better way to write it but I want there to be no misunderstanding so "Honesty is the best policy" and it stands as is! Believe me, for my children sometimes finding what they like outside their sensory world can be difficult so finding this "motivator" is a crucial first step in the process of teaching a child with autism.

The process and implementation sounds simple and it is with the one proviso..."You must be consistent!" For example if we want a child to sit on a chair to do a puzzle, or look at a book, or eat with a spoon, we let them understand that when they have completed the task they will be able to play with their "spinner", "twiddley" or bounce on the trampoline (whatever their motivator is) Now the length of time we expect them to comply may be short, 1-2 minutes even, but the learning outcome is that the child knows that they will get what they want when we get what we want. I should point out that getting them to "understand" the system depends on the child. For some it may be language for others it may be gestures whilst for others it will be symbols (but that's another article!)

For many, this behavioral approach seems rigid and soul less but without boundaries the world for the child with autism will become increasingly narrow and confined. Teaching a child with autism does not only take place in the classroom with trained and understanding staff. The child with autism needs to experience life just as the child without autism does. To do this they need behavioural boundaries that do not come to them through developing peer pressure, a desire to please, acquire skills or follow role models. Because my students are non-verbal and do not understand language I need to take them out on a bus to the supermarket if I want them to understand "money exchange" at even the most rudimentary level. However, once outside the school, the wider community is less understanding of behaviours that to them come under the umbrella of "bad behaviour".

As you can see, my article on "Teaching Children with Autism" is not a long one. My focus has been on finding a way to start the process and, as we all know, every journey begins with that first step!