Article 5

This road to becoming a teacher is full of wisdom and learning. I attended an Autism Lunch and Learn hosted at my placement high school prepared for all special education (spec ed) teachers. The goal was to dig deeper to understand our students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and looking at effective classroom approach to create a safe learning environment for these students. It is laudable for the teachers to take time to continue learning in their profession, and for the school to create great resources to support their work. I want to share 4 key takeaways from the session:

1. Emotion education should be integrated with academic education.

Students with autism cannot interpret or differentiate emotions, they must learn how to. For a smoother development, the learning curve should start with defined emotions such as happiness or sadness, then progress to more complicated emotions such as anxiety and irritability.

It is helpful to teach anxiety on a 5-point scale. Level 1 being calm and level 5 as loss of control. In this way, the student can identify their emotion based on a description on the scale, communicate how they feel, and look for a solution to bring their anxiety down. For example, if a student begins to feel anxious from the chatter in the classroom, he can communicate to the teacher, “I’m a 3”. The teacher can action by asking the student to go for a walk, listen to music, etc. It is also important to ensure the students have tools to maintain their emotion at level 1.

Great … educators always strive to understand their students individually, because it is the only way to provide the best kind of education.

2. Providing an emotion outlet.

Most of us know how to rewind and manage stress. We go for coffee breaks, walks, etc. However, students with autism cannot provide an outlet for themselves. We must show the students why it is important, and encourage them to discover what works best. 20-30 minutes of exercise everyday helps immensely. The high school I work at provides cycles in the spec ed common room for student use. Listening to music is another effective way in reducing anxiety. A reminder was for spec ed classes to remain flexible in classroom structure to address any raising issues. If a student’s anxiety aggravates and needs to do some cycling, they can be excused from the lesson.

3. Minimize the impact of change as much as possible.

Students with ASD do not adjust well to change. Small changes in the environment that we are not even aware of can be the trigger to anxiety. Students may feel nervous due to a different class schedule for the day. Teachers can help reduce stress by using a lot of visual aids. A visual calendar is helpful in mitigating the impact of future change. Keep the calendar in the same spot in the classroom so that students can refer to it as often as they like. This helps to increase predictability and consistency.

4. It all starts with great teachers.

Teachers at the Lunch and Learn were able to share personal and detailed stories of their students. Great spec ed educators always strive to understand their students individually, because it is the only way to provide the best kind of education. They recalled how they found anxiety triggers for specific students. One teacher could not figure out why her student was having anxiety problems when entering her classroom, but not others. It took time, but she found out the crowded hallways in between class changes triggered his anxiety. So she asked him to enter a quiet room after class ended, and until the hallways quieted down, he then went to his second class. Caring and patient teachers are key in providing a better learning environment to spec ed students, where they can be groomed to become more independent and mature young adults.

What are your tips and tricks in working with spec ed students or students with ASD? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Leave a comment below and share with us.