April is characterised by autism awareness month, and the 2nd of April is World Autism Awareness Day. The current stats for autism prevalence stand at around 2% of the world’s population – that is around 140 million people. In South Africa, we can estimate that about 1 million people – so we are fairly certain that somewhere during your teaching career you will encounter a learner with autism.
Autism is a spectrum disorder and so we often encounter learners who are, what we would term, high functioning autistic. These children can generally cope with the academic aspect of school, but find it hard to socialise, or are seen as rude becausethey don’t understand the social rules that we all pick up incidentally or naturally. We all know that when we are attending a course, we need to be quiet while the facilitator is talking, nobody told us this, we have picked it up incidentally through life.
So how can we help these learners that will inevitably find their way into our classroom?
1. Create a visual schedule
This is simply providing the learner with a schedule at his level of learning. Learners with autism are typically visual learners, and so often verbal instructions are not processed. We therefore, need to provide them with a visual schedule, you can use objects, photographs, symbols or the written word – depending on the child’s level.
2. Provide structure and routine within your classroom
Structure and routine are two characteristics that are sometimes used to define the culture of autism. People with autism thrive on structure and routine. This is why you need careful planning and structuring of your classroom. Make sure the learner with autism is aware of where they sit for different activities, and where different activities take place. If they find it difficult moving from one class to another, or even from the classroom to the toilet, provide them with a picture of the teacher they are going to, or the picture of the place they are going to. They can then give the picture to the next teacher, or place it in an envelope or box when they arrive at the specific place they need to be.
3. Provide them with a help card
Autistic individuals and learners may get stuck on a task, and not know what to do. We can help them with this by providing a help card. Due to communication being a problem, this card may help them express their need for help. They can have it on their table and hold it up when they need to, or in their bag or a pocket, and put it on their table if they need help.
4. Keep your language short and simple
Avoid using figurative language like “it’s raining cats and dogs”, or “keep your eye on the ball”. You may end up with the learner holding the ball up to his eye, or really expecting to see cats and dogs coming from the sky.
Due to the visual nature of autistic learners, when we give them an instruction, they often only hear the last part of the instruction, e.g. “Don’t run”, the learner will hear “run” and proceed to run, rather say “walk”
5. Provide opportunities for a break
Sensory overload is a common issue that many with autism have to deal with. It happens when there is too much information around them, and they are unable to cope with the amount of information. And so we see a meltdown. Again, provide your learner with a break card, and give them the opportunity to use this card when they begin to feel overwhelmed – this may be as simple as going for a walk. Going to sit in a room where no one else is around, or maybe just some time on an iPad.
With these tips, we can help our autistic learners integrate into mainstream schools where they can learn and where we can also raise awareness, understanding and acceptance. But, we also need to support them socially. So look out for the next post on supporting learners socially in a mainstream school.
Pictures from My Cute Graphics