* Working with Big Bad Autism by Cambria Jenkins 

Here is an adult perspective on growing up with autism. It think it’s helpful for us to remember that stereotypes about autism still abound. Cambria suffered from the stigma associated with “stimming.” Like her, I have found it far better to provide an adaptation of self-stimulation that works to allay stress but also lessens its impact on social relationships. Is it hypocritical to respond to social pressures that way? For the students involved, it was a pragmatic solution which helped them make friends more easily.

* 366 Days of Autism blog

366 days of autismI just happened upon a terrific blog called 366 Days of Autism.  Written by Nicole, a mother of an autistic middle schooler, this blog follows her son’s journey as they navigate school and social relationships.  Nicole writes that we could all be “on the spectrum,” but just deal differently with our “quirks.”  I also love this quote by Nicole:  My favorite phrase?, ‘My son is not disabled.  He is differently abled, by my standards I say perfectly abled.’

If you are searching for a well-written site with an abundance of valuable tips on life with an autistic child, this one is for you. “Day #261 Flowering Self-Esteem” is brilliant.  Everything I have read and seen is well worth the time.  Please check it out!

* Social skills: developing IEP goals

To follow up on yesterday’s post, the purpose of effective data collection is to provide a starting point for instruction, specifically, developing IEP goals.  IEP 1

Where do I begin?  Like the old adage, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.  Those behaviors which are most interfering with a child’s ability to function socially provide a starting point.  However, those “squeaky wheel” issues do not always belong entirely to a student.  They may be related to teacher behavior.  For instance, a teacher may not provide adequate warning for schedule changes or transitions from favorite activities.  They may misinterpret a student’s response as challenging their authority.  Teasing/bullying classmates can create extra “squeak” for kids who struggle with social interactions.  The classroom may be overloaded with visual and auditory distractions.  I remember one classroom with a constant musical soundtrack in the background.  (It drove me nuts.)   Parents may be uninvolved or have unreasonable expectations about the school environment, such as the amount of time a student may spend on his special interests.  Regardless of ownership, though, students must learn to cope with social and behavioral hazards.  I may be able to ward off some bullying and help a teacher better understand the way the student talks, but overall, that student must manage himself under stress.  (I have posted on this dilemma before.)

I ask myself two questions: What specific behaviors are interfering with my student’s learning?  What behaviors can I teach my student to promote improved relationships and coping strategies?

I must write measurable objectives that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of my students.  All that data I collected forms a present level of performance and guides this step.  I also need parent involvement, information, and feedback in order to write effective goals.

Here are some examples of goals.  I may want my students to:

  • work effectively with classmates in completing a small group project
  • interact with classmates at lunch through conversation
  • interact with classmates at recess by joining in adult-organized activities
  • transition from one activity to another at a rate commensurate with peers
  • respond to teasing and/or bullying by moving away and reporting to an adult
  • participate in group classroom discussions
  • ask for time to chill or take a break when feeling overwhelmed
  • refer to plans for dealing with unexpected schedule change
  • monitor rate of completed classroom assignments

For each of these, I must add sufficient information so everyone knows when that goal has been mastered.  For how many recesses must a student join in adult-organized activities?  With what prompts?  Each annual goal must be realistic and requires both classroom and special education support.  In my experience, the kids who make the most progress are those whose parents are also closely involved in the process.

* Developing leadership

As mentioned in a previous post, special needs kids often excel in areas such as science and social studies.  I do remember when those were the very subjects my students would miss in order to receive a double dose of reading and math or to attend a social skills group.  Also, science and social studies may be textbook-boring, instead of the hands-on, energized subjects we might hope for.  Putting those two dilemmas aside, science and social studies can provide terrific opportunities for leadership training with our twice exceptional and high-functioning autistic kids.

There are a number of ways to take advantage of these kids’ interests and skills in science and/or social studies.  Here’s the shortened version: assign special needs kids as “teaching assistants” or “mentors” to small groups rotating through centers in a regular classroom.  You’ll need a willing classroom teacher, schedule congruities, and a heads-up on science/social studies topics.  With rehearsal in a social skills or other small group (even reading, writing, or math), you’ll provide rubric-based practice for your leaders-in-training.  Depending upon your student’s maturity and skill levels, you could assign them to work with younger or same age peers.  Here are some other important steps:

  1. Make sure your kids have opportunities to develop familiarity with that classroom teacher and room (visit during lunch or before school).
  2. Provide your student with the center topic, materials, and expectations (preferably assisted by the classroom teacher/assistant and reinforced by special ed teacher and perhaps parents).
  3. Have an adult nearby for at least the first rotation of students; a classroom or special ed assistant (prepared to use the same rubric as the student) would be perfect.
  4. Review the adult’s rubric and comments after the first center activities are complete.  I set up a Wikispace for assistants to provide me immediate feedback.
  5. Plan on meeting with your student as soon as possible after their first session to elicit feedback and review the rubric.

This process is a bit labor-intensive on the front end, but soon settles into a routine.  Voilà!  Your special needs student becomes the resident expert, other kids now look up to him, and his confidence and skills have received a huge boost.  The following rubric is a sample for this process and would need to be individualized for each student.  The student’s “title” should reflect their role and aspirations.  Their goal (number of stars) should also be defined and gradually increase over time.science mentor rubric

* A question on social narratives

angry kidI’ve been asked to provide another example of a social narrative for dealing with bullying.  I write stories about bullying from two perspectives, of course: the one who bullies and the one who is bullied.  They are often the same kid: students who’ve been bullied are at risk for becoming someone who bullies others.  The following clip is from a series on how it feels to be called a bully, especially when you don’t realize how your remarks have affected others.  It’s painful to help a kid who has been targeted by others, feeling their shame and despair.  It’s equally hard to redirect a kid who was once that target and has now focused their anger on others.  In the series below, there’s no “perfect” ending.  Learning to deal with bullying, whether from the hands of others or from your own, is too often a part of special needs kids’ life experiences.  My hope is to take something ugly and work it for good.

Mike chapter 1

Any feedback on this?  

* Should phonics be taught to ASD kids?

boy readingI’ve been asked if kids with autism should be taught phonics skills.  Yes, yes, yes!  I know there’s a stereotype out there that autistic kids simply memorize everything they read, but I have known many who didn’t.  No matter what the reader’s strengths or weaknesses, phonics is a vital tool for decoding unfamiliar words.

(I think this is the shortest post I’ve ever written!)

* Discrimination, Bullying & Isolation In A World of Inclusion by Exceptional Delaware

This loving dad of a special needs kid captures the struggles of families as they follow a path of uncertain outcomes. That path is fraught with self- recrimination, anguish for the suffering child, and hope for a better future. Parents need teachers to come alongside them as they navigate this uncertain terrain.

Exceptional Delaware

This is going to be one of the hardest articles I’ve ever written. The reason for this is because it is deeply personal. I write about bullying and discrimination often on this blog, and I understand it all too well. I see it everyday, in all walks of life.

“People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer.” Andrew Smith

Everyone in this world has bullied or been bullied at some point in their lives. Any time you exert will and force on someone to get a desired outcome, this could be defined as bullying. I am guilty of it. In my quest to have the perfect IEP for my son, I have expected knowledge and wisdom of my son’s disabilities greater than my own. This has been my life for the past 9 1/2 months. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until someone said…

View original post 1,828 more words

* Advocacy: Us vs. them?

arguments 2Advocacy for special needs or at-risk students may come with an unintended “divide” or outright conflict between special and regular educators.  As a special educator, I typically get more small group or one-to-one time with students.  My relationships with kids develop more easily in that setting.  I do more specific analysis and teach with greater individualization than a regular classroom teacher.  (If I do not, am I truly a specialist?)  The classroom teacher must manage a larger group of kids, stay on a defined pace of instruction, and mediate a wide range of activities.  There’s a contrast in perspective, like the difference between close-up and wide-angle lenses.

Why does advocacy for high functioning autistic students tend to trigger more conflict than with any other group of kids?  That’s been my experience.  It seems to me that classroom teachers more often pull lower functioning kids under their wings.  Their typical learners respond to my “orientation” at the beginning of the year and also accept the lower functioning kids quite well.  But the high functioning AU kids?  Many classroom teachers find them irritating, and to quote one teacher, “obnoxious.”  Their students find the AU kid similarly unappealing.  When I appear in the room after a crisis at recess, the teacher doesn’t want to hear my explanations for the AU student’s melt-down.  The assistant says I am coddling this kid.  What has gone wrong?

For one thing, I am not and should not be neutral when supporting my students.  If I am not their advocate, if I cannot interpret their behavior for others, who will do that?  The kids certainly can’t, and their parents may not even know what happened.  It’s up to me to explain that Devon was pushed over the edge by continual teasing, or that Lamar was trying to save face, or that Mike couldn’t handle a power struggle with a teacher.  I am seen as “taking the kid’s side” when I provide an explanation for their behavior.  And that’s the truth: I AM on their side.  Does that mean it’s OK for my student (who is also their student) to kick someone or curse a teacher?  No, but the situation is not usually a simple one.  Typically, a series of misinterpretations and missed opportunities has led to a crisis.  The solutions are also complex.  The AU student is as upset and perplexed as the teachers.  It takes time to sort through the multiple events that led to the crisis.

How do I negotiate this terrain?  I try to elicit empathy for my AU kids, especially from the teacher assistants who will be supervising them through lunch and recess, the two deadly Social Swamps.  I interpret the AU kid’s body language and signals of distress.  I encourage a light response, not heavy artillery.  I try to help adults see what it’s like to be that kid.  Am I successful?  About half the time, I think.  It’s hard to overcome their sense that I am irrevocably biased.  It’s hard to overcome their sense that I don’t understand how hard it can be to deal with these kids in a large group.  I do try to empathize with the classroom teacher; I have taught very large groups of kids and understand the challenges.  And the classroom teacher can still hear the “but…” as I speak.

Limited time to communicate adds to the “divide.”  Teachers don’t have time for lengthy conversations during the day.  How effective is a five minute conversation, interrupted a couple of times, when emotions are running high?  Then there are meetings and conferences after school.  The assistant has left for the day.  I’ve tried to use email as a backup strategy for eliciting empathy.  If you have followed this blog at all, you know I’ve violated email etiquette regarding lengthy messages!

Maybe I am just not great at “Crucial Conversations.”  I am going to read that book ASAP since I face a few crucial dialogs in the next couple of weeks.  Hopefully, I will also post a review of my success with that material, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks!

* Perceptions and prejudices

black and white kidsBlacks and whites, typical learners and special needs kids: How do they fare in school?  Often not so well.  I am going to share a couple of scenarios from my own experience.

1.  I worked with a high functioning autistic student who struggled at school.  Although he was on track academically, he had a miserable experience socially.  Trevor was the football fanatic I described in a recent post.  No matter the cost, he wanted to play football with his classmates.  One classmate often tripped him just when he was about to catch the ball or score.  Not only did Trevor get upset about losing, he was even more angered by the injustice of the situation.  I have seen this heightened sense of “right and wrong” in a number of ASD kids.  They have often learned social skills through demonstration of, and by following, sets of rules.  When those rules are not followed, and especially if these kids personally suffer from that inequity, they may respond catastrophically.  When words did not work, Trevor then physically threatened the other kid, although he never actually touched him.

The playground supervisor’s reaction was to warn and eventually blame Trevor.  From a distance, she could see Trevor’s “in your face” body language.  The other kid was backing away.  Trevor was benched, sent to the office, or sent to me.

The same dynamics occurred in his classroom.  Other kids were adept at pushing Trevor’s buttons with just a gesture or sound.  In his already heightened state of social anxiety, Trevor was a fuse just waiting to be lit.  I did not condone Trevor’s verbal outbursts.  He would yell, “Stop looking at me!” and interrupt the teacher while she was trying to focus the class on math.  I did understand his teacher’s frustration.  BUT I also wanted Trevor’s teacher and assistant to understand his perspective.  His outbursts were never random; they were always triggered by a perceived threat from others.  As the year progressed, he became increasingly unable to manage his responses.  He was caught in a vicious cycle: other kids could easily set him off, the adults were fearful of his outbursts, he was blamed for losing self control, and he was also terrified of his own temper.  We had some high points, such as when the teacher allowed Trevor to use a classroom space for calming down.  She also encouraged him to use his “plans” (pocket-sized books I created with strategies for calming).  But both those two options became “punishments.”  Trevor felt humiliated when the teacher demanded, “Get your book,” as other kids snickered.  That calming down space became a “time out” for him when the teacher wanted him out of sight, so instead of cooling off, Trevor became more frantic.  Eventually, I would be called to his classroom.  As soon as he saw me, he’d relax.  He was out of the traumatic environment and would be able to communicate his strong feelings safely.

2.  Here’s another scenario.  I worked with a young black boy who was not labeled at all.  However, he was considered the most disruptive kid in his class and the local school motto was “This kind should be with you.”  I added him to my groups of six kids (quite a bit easier than a group of 21?) and it took two weeks for him to be “socialized” and under voice command.  He was actually a delight to teach.  I had already started observing him in class, since I needed to reverse his decline there.  As soon as I walked in the door, a number of kids would scream out, “David!  Mrs. So-and-So is here for you!”  I shook my head, gave them a signal to be silent, and sat down to watch.  As I observed, I wondered why David had been selected as “the kind who should be with me.”  I was elbowed and splashed with water by students who thought it was amusing.  I watched as kids threw materials, pushed one another, and were generally out of control.  “My” David looked overwhelmed.  Eventually, he shrieked above the clamor and received the teacher’s routine lecture on following rules.

I have to admit that at one point, I also lost it in David’s classroom.  The kids were supposedly lining up for lunch.  David was doing fine, but the rest of the kids were pushing, yelling, laughing, and crashing.  All the while, their teacher was ineffectually talking about how they should act.  Without asking, I used my teacher voice, got them in line, and took them to the cafeteria myself.  I simply could not bear to see them act so outrageously.  David was the canary in the mine for that class.  Was his race a factor?  He was one of four black kids in the class.  I eventually ended up with one of the other black kids, too.

Have I effectively changed some of these perceptions and prejudices?  Yes, but that’s another post.  Stay tuned!

* “Go and play”

boy-608821_640“Go and play.”  These are the words kids may hear when they report problems at recess.  How safe is a playground?  How well is it supervised?  What are some ways to improve playground safety?

Let’s be honest.  The playground can be a tough place to supervise.  There are often blind spots behind climbing structures, the surface material may not soften falls, kids/adults may be too far away from each other for effective monitoring, and kids may use this time to bully others or dare them to take greater risks on equipment.  In most schools I’ve worked, playground supervision is probably second only to cafeteria duty in appeal to teacher assistants.

The playground can be a dangerous place, physically and socially.  Between 2001 to 2008, a staggering average of 218,851 injuries required emergency department care, mostly from falls.  That obviously doesn’t include all those cases where kids get ice and bandages from the school nurse. The National Program for Playground Safety identifies supervision as one of the key elements in ensuring student safety.  Playgrounds are also ripe fields for bullying.  At StopBullying.gov, children who are bullied generally have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

Do those risk factors ring a bell?  For special needs kids, or black students in a mostly white school, recess may not be a time to relax.  It’s a time when these kids need greater support from supervisors who may not be equipped to provide it.  Over the years, I have attended a number of training sessions on how to improve playground supervision.  Providing an adequate adult-to-child ratio is crucial.  Ensuring that supervisors are not clustered in conversation is another key element.  A recent study to improve interactions on the playground suggested playgrounds be divided into sections by age, with supervision for each section.  Here are their results:

  • It was found that having a structured activity occurring within a section of the playground was related to much higher rates of cooperative play among children and less physical and rough play.
  • For example, having an activity in a particular section of the playground was associated with a three-fold increase in the probability that children would be engaged in cooperative play, while rough-physical play was cut in half and thereby reduced to a more normative level.
  • Further, when adults actively monitored their section of the playground, there was a significant increase in positive social interactions amongst children from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a special education teacher, I am particularly concerned about the safety of EC kids on the playground.  If a district has the resources, adding an additional assistant to watch out for identified kids can be helpful (if that assistant is properly trained).  Special ed teachers need to forewarn playground supervisors about potential social problems (see previous post).  I do not want to tell my kids to get help from an adult who routinely responds, “Go and play.”  I am also concerned that my kids may be perceived as the aggressors, no matter the circumstances.  In my next post, I will elaborate on these issues.