How to Support a Child with Autism in the Classroom
Below is a letter by Mrs. Kamini Lakhani, who founded Support for Autistic Individuals (SAI Connections) in 2004 in Mumbai, India. Kamini is the mother of a young adult with autism and has been providing services in the field of autism for more than 20 years. The post originally appeared on the SAI website here.
We met at a party. She was young and vivacious. We hit it off immediately as we both were from the education field.
She was a 4th grade teacher. As soon as she heard that I worked with people with autism, a barrage of questions and comments followed. You see, she was teaching a child with autism in one of her classes.
“It’s impossible to handle him.”
“He’s totally disruptive and creates a ruckus in my class.”
“What an attention seeker!”
“Do you think he should be attending regular school?”
“He can’t sit still, even for a moment.”
“I don’t think he’s capable of learning.”
“His mother is so demanding and she overestimates her child’s abilities.”
I didn’t have to say much to keep this conversation going. The occasional head nods and several “hmms” sufficed. It felt different hearing the educator’s point of view… the viewpoint of someone teaching children with autism. I’m more accustomed to hearing stories from parents about how unfairly teachers treat their children at mainstream school. It felt like the proverbial elephant. One person described the trunk, whereas the other described the torso. It didn’t feel like they were describing the same magnificent animal. Today, I’d like to address things from the view point of mainstream teachers via an Open letter.
First, I’d like to commend you for taking up this profession. You had a choice of other more lucrative careers – but you chose to take up this noble profession. I’m certain that your intent was to make a difference in the lives of children. But here is this one student, who you can’t handle, who makes you uncomfortable, and creates a storm in your classroom. Secretly, you wish he wasn’t in your class.
You probably feel guilty about thinking these thoughts – but you just can’t deal with his odd and disruptive behaviors. I know how you feel. Mohit, my son is now 27. For 10 years of his life he attended regular schools. I had the opportunity to interact with and explain autism to several wonderful teachers. I’d like you to shift gears for a little while.
Let’s move from how you feel to how this child feels. What if you came to know that this kid is not disrupting your class deliberately. He has a differently wired brain. Not abnormal or dysfunctional – just different. Due to the way his brain is wired, he is hyperactive and appears out of control. He seems anxious. He is unable to connect with the other children. In fact, it may appear like he’s fighting with them often! All of these behaviors are his way of crying out for help. YOUR help.
Even if this child is vocal, I can assure you that he is not able to emotionally share with you and let you know what’s going on. Can you imagine how he feels? No friends, no support and no one to understand him. Take a minute to digest what I just said. Visualize this child in your classroom. Now that you look at him differently, wouldn’t you like to help him? I’m glad to see you nod.
Here are five things you can do immediately to teach children with autism better.
- Connect with the parent(s). The parents are your biggest ally. Have a heart-to-heart chat with the child’s parent(s). Share your difficulties. Let them know that you want to help. Ask for reports, assessments that the child may have undergone. Study these. These will be huge eye openers in enhancing your understanding of the child’s condition.
- Make a list of the child’s strengths. Every child… I repeat… EVERY child has strengths. You just have to observe them closely. The child may be extremely loving and caring, or have some skill that your other students don’t. List these out.
- Understand how he learns, This child will not learn like your other students. Many students with autism learn visually. Hence, what will help is a visual schedule. Or break things up to help him understand and stay calm. By the way, there are many ways in which a child can learn.
- Ask for additional help. You have at least 20 other children looking for your guidance. Yes, it’s not possible to pay attention to one child, while the others are in limbo. A shadow teacher or an Aide is extremely useful in this case. She can sit with the students and guides this child when he gets inattentive, so that your class can move smoothly.
- Have a behavior plan in place Individuals on the spectrum get overwhelmed quickly because of something called sensory overload. It’s important to pick up the early signs and have a designated area where the student can go with the shadow teacher if he has a meltdown or gets anxious. He can rejoin the class when he’s ready. It makes the child feel assured and safe, and keeps your class functioning smoothly as well. A behavioral consultant can work out a customized plan, which can be followed at school.
This can be cumbersome and stretch you. I understand. But can I take you back to why you decided to become a teacher?
Here is what a couple of my mainstream teacher friends said:
“I wanted to be a teacher to create value for the next generation of our future… I wanted to make a positive difference.”
“I wanted to impart my knowledge and learn from them as well. I always want to remain young at heart by surrounding myself with kids. And above all – Love for kids… Love their innocence… Beautiful souls.”
You, my dear friend, are a sculptor. You have taken this opportunity to impact a child’s life. Yes, this same child whom you find impossible and disruptive. By teaching children with autism, you will expand your own heart. You will create happiness for his family too. And one more thing. Your influence doesn’t just stop with this family. It creates a ripple effect. Imagine all the little ones under your care. Imagine them looking up at you with innocent, studying eyes, to see how you behave with them different. They’re watching you carefully. Remember that they will learn what you do, and not what you say. They will talk to their parents about the amazing ways in which you handled and accommodated ‘that different child’. I hope you will take this challenge of enhancing your own life, and the lives of the next generation.
Here’s something beautiful for you.
P.S. – Do get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about any of your ‘difficult’ cases. I can be reached at email@example.com