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ASD Students and My Classroom

The Wherever School District has three high schools.  One of them houses a special education program for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Last spring, the district announced that, for various reasons, the program was being moved to Nameless High School, where I teach.  Most of the students would be in a self-contained classroom, but a chunk of them would be mainstreamed into neuro-typical classrooms.

Last month, I was in Nameless High School.  So much to do!  Desks to arrange, lessons to plan, copies to run.  By coincidence, the school was running an orientation week for certain students, letting them get the feel for the building, figure out where the classrooms were, and so on.  As a result, I got a steady stream of students wandering into my room.  I greeted each of them, and several I immediately recognized as autistic.

When the trickle died away, I asked around and learned the orientation was for special education students, especially those in the ASD program.  Looks like I'm pegged to be the ASD English teacher.

This happens to me a lot.  Once the counseling office learned my son is autistic, I became the go-to teacher for placing autistic students, on the grounds that I have special, insider knowledge about autism, and that I'll be especially sympathetic to ASD students.

There's a certain amount of truth to this.  After raising Aran, I have a certain amount of specialized information about the way he thinks, and by extension, other autists.  However, autists vary wildly in their needs.  Some want to be touched, other's can't bear it.  Some have sensory overload problems, others don't.  Some love to read, others hate it.  Just like neuro-typical kids.  But autistic teens are often harder to reach, and you have to speak in certain ways.  As one example, figurative language is often difficult, and you have to avoid using it in everyday speech.  This is the exact opposite to someone like me, who spins stories for a living.  I create and use figurative language in my speaking as a way to interest my classes, and I'm very good at it.  This skill is actually a detriment in a room full of autists.  I accidentally panicked Aran more than once with it, in fact, and now I'll have several Arans.  It will make for a challenging year.

However, that's the way it is, and the students need someone who knows what's going on, so I'm it.  When I realized what was happening, I examined my room and gave it some thought.  Sharyl, my co-teacher, happened by at that moment, and I discussed it with her.

Autists are often easily distracted because their brains don't filter out sensory information as handily as neuro-typical brians do.  The sensation of your socks gently rubbing against your feet quickly disappears from your awareness after you put your shoes on, but many autists are continually aware of it.  You can examine and then ignore a painting on the wall, but an autist will notice it again and again and again.

In order to cut down on distractions, I'm going to cover the windows that look out into the hallway.  (This is against school policy, but I'll get an exception.)  I usually put up a great many posters in my room--more potential distractions--but I'll cut back until I know what the distraction threshold of my students is.  I always tell my students what the plan for the day is at the beginning of class, but now I'll get into the habit of putting my lesson plan on the board--autists don't handle surprises well and they better when they know exactly what's coming up.

At Sharyl's suggestion, I also put a decompression zone in the back corner of my room.  Autists sometimes get overloaded and can be pushed into a meltdown.  A safe, low-sensory area is often helpful to let them decompress.  I pushed my two rolling cabinets around to wall off the corner and make a little alcove.  Then I put down a blank gray rug (my classroom has a busy checkerboard carpet) and added two low chairs--a soft, squeezy beanbag-type arm chair for autists who need some reassurance, and a stark, web-style lawn chair for autists who need to feel less restricted.  I bought two sets of ear protectors and hooks to hang them from, along with some baby wipes to clean them with.  On the floor I put a lamp with a calm, low-watt bulb.  Later, I'll put up a sign that says, "Safety Zone" or something.  There!  Students who get overloaded can slip back to the Safety Zone and wind down before they melt down.

I worry, though, about the impact on the neuro-typical students.  The class can't be all about the ASD kids.  It's about bringing the ASD students into the neuro-typical world, with help.  It's a fine line to walk.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 10th, 2015 01:45 am (UTC)
It sounds like your autists will be in good hands. At the very least, you have a head-start in prepping for them.

The pre-K library program where I've been volunteering for years only recently began providing us with resources for dealing with special needs children. They haven't, yet, provided any actual training or workshops - just lots of reading, a few recommended videos, and what I would classify as a "pep talk" by a special needs librarian. So far, I've had a few hyper-active children in the program, but no one who has been identified to me as being on the spectrum. I hope I'm reasonably prepared to deal with them when they arrive, as I have no control over the physical environment where we hold the program. It's a multi-use community room, with lots of distractions that already affect even the non-autists who attend.
Sep. 10th, 2015 02:07 am (UTC)
Having little or not control over the environment makes dealing with this kind of thing even more challenging.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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