Mary Temple Grandin is a prominent American scientist, author and autism advocate. Dr. Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old. She was fortunate to get early speech therapy. Her teachers also taught her how to wait and take turns when playing board games. She was educated in a mainstream kindergarten at age 5. When she was young, she was considered "weird" and teased and bullied in high school. The only place she had friends was activities where there was a shared interest such as horses, electronics, or model rockets.
Now, Dr. Grandin is considered to be one of the best professors in the USA, lecturing on animal behaviour and livestock management, and autism. She is a published author, with books such as Thinking in Pictures , Temple Talks... and Different, Not Less . In her books, Dr. Grandin outlines some of the best ways to support and teach children with autism, and here are just a few!
Tips for Supporting and Understanding Children with Autism
1. Visual Thinking
Many people with autism are visual thinkers - some think in pictures, others think in patterns but it is mostly visual. Dr. Grandin describes her thoughts like a photo reel just running through her mind. Nouns are typically the easiest to pick up as they can simply just picture that object in their mind, but abstract words such as 'up' or 'cold' can be trickier. To learn a word like 'up', you should try to demonstrate this - you could demonstrate this with a toy plane taking off from the desk. Using Picture Cards (PECS) can also help with children's visual communication.
2. Simple Instructions
People with autism can have difficulty in remember long strings of information - imagine being told the entire process of how to assemble an IKEA desk all at once and then just being left to do it. It's far too much verbal information to process, especially given that autistic people struggle with processing information as it is. Instead, break things down into simple steps and only give one or two at a time. If you can present instructions visually as well, that is a bonus!
3. Identify talents
It is important to remember that not all autistic people are going to have exceptional skills at math, drawing or music - this is very much a stereotype. However, many autistic people will have skills in something and you should encourage them to pursue and engage in these wherever they can. Be careful not to place too much importance on the skill though, to the point where it defines their worth.
4. Teach to special interests
Many autistic people will fixate or obsess over a certain subject or topic and it could be anything - common ones are science, maps, trains etc. You can utilise these interests and use them in your teaching as a motivation to engage with worth, or you can use them as a reward or an activity to do during a break. Many of the children I have worked with liked to watch clips or look at pictures of their special interest, and this was a great motivator.
Example - interest of trains
Math - counting seats on train, working out distance between stations, calculating speed, pricing of tickets
English - writing a story about a train journey and destinations on the route
Science - how steam engines work, forces, electricity
History - industrial revolution, evolution of trains
Geography - train routes all over the world, how it impacts tourism/trade
5. Handwriting alternatives
Autistic children may struggle with fine motor skills which can lead to difficulty in handwriting, often with their writing being very difficult to read. This can cause a great deal of frustration, and this may lead to children refusing to engage in activities or starting to go into meltdown. Instead, offer alternatives like a laptop or iPad or allow their TA to scribe for them.
6. Be aware of sensory needs
A hallmark of autism is a difficulty with sensory processing. This means that some children are highly sensitive to certain sounds, smells, tastes, textures or sights and some sensory input may be extremely distressing, even painful for some children. Sound is probably the most common sensory trigger, so noises such as school bells, fire alarms, sirens or lots of classroom noise can be upsetting and they may refuse to go into certain rooms due to the fear of unexpected or too many noises. Children with sensory needs need to have protections in place to help them navigate the world. Some of these could be ear defenders , having a calm corner or a sensory room. For children who are visually sensitive, bright lights, busy wall displays or flickering lights can be extremely distracting, so choose your seating plan carefully and ensure your classroom lights are suitable.
7. Weighted jackets, blankets and fidgeting
Some children with autism can be very hyperactive, and they may feel calmer if they have a weighted jacket or blanket on for parts of the day. The pressure from the blanket or jacket helps calm, or 'reset', the nervous system which is the same reason that a lot of autistic children like tight hugs. Ideally, a child should wear the jacket or blanket for 20 mins and then take it off for a while so that they don't adapt to having it on all the time as it will then lose its benefits.
For those with excess energy, or those who fidget when anxious, allowing them to fidget can help calm them.
8. Non-verbal does not mean non-understanding
Autistic children vary greatly in their ability or willingness to use verbal language. Some children will have very eloquent and extensive language, whereas others may be totally non-verbal. It is important to remember that even if a child does not use spoken language it does not mean that they do not understand things that are being said around them.
9. Use alternative communication techniques
Autistic people have the right to voice themselves and we need to find a way for them to do so in a way that works for them. That could be writing, using PECS, using apps on an iPad or phone, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) or a combination of a few methods. Finding a way that works for each person may take a long time, but it is worth it and it will open up a whole world of communication for both the autistic person and you.
Teaching generalisation is often a problem for children with autism. To teach a child to generalise the principle of not running across the street, it must be taught in many different locations. If he is taught in only one location, the child will think that the rule only applies to one specific place.
A common problem is that a child may be able to use the toilet correctly at home but refuses to use it at school. This may be due to a failure to recognise the toilet. Hilde de Clereq from Belgium discovered that an autistic child may use a small non-relevant detail to recognise an object such as a toilet. It takes detective work to find that detail. In one case a boy would only use the toilet at home that had a black seat. His parents and teacher were able to get him to use the toilet at school by covering its white seat with black tape. The tape was then gradually removed and toilets with white seats were now recognised as toilets.
The world can appear to be a chaotic and confusing place and many autistic people prefer the safety and reassurance of having a structure or routine. A routine may mean different things to different people on the autism spectrum. For some, they may want to have the same breakfast every day, travel to school/work the same way or wear certain clothes on certain days. For others, it may mean creating a morning routine that they adhere to religiously which then allows them to start their day off feeling less anxious and more prepared. The reason as to why these restrictive patterns of behaviour help autistic people varies; it may reduce anxiety about the future, or it may simply free up mental capacity. Some autistic people have described their brain as being like a computer, where they only have so much RAM or space available and by creating an optimal routine, they now no longer have to think about what to do at certain times, they go on to autopilot, thus freeing up RAM or space for other thoughts. What is important to note is that these routines will typically be adhered to strictly, and any deviation or disruption can be upsetting or distressing.