Advice for teachers from a teen on the autism spectrum

By Ethan Hirschberg
Ethan Hirschberg

This blog post is by Ethan Hirschberg, a teenager with autism. You can read more from Ethan on his blog or on Facebook @thejourneythroughautism!

To all of the wonderful educators that have taught me: thank you for making my school life better! I have been so lucky to have such wonderful teachers in my life through elementary, middle, and the beginning of high school.

Quick background story: For the privacy of the people involved, I am not going to mention any names. About a year ago, I had a coach. This coach was very respected, honest, caring, and kind; I was pushed me to the best of my abilities plus a little bit more. One day about halfway through class, I was working very hard, but the pace of things was starting to go too fast. I was getting confused and overwhelmed and started having trouble telling my left from my right. The coach, in front of a few students, got frustrated and said “What are you, autistic?”

My heart broke. I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed. Nevertheless, I said, “yes.”

The coach’s jaw dropped and the coach was speechless, realizing what happened. I came home crying. The coach felt so badly afterwards and apologized over and over again to me and my parents, and even came to my house to meet with me personally to talk about this further.

The purpose of this story: Even the best teachers make mistakes!

Knowing this, there are certain things that I have realized throughout my years as a student that teachers do well and also what they can work on.

Disclaimer: this is only my experiences.

Things that helped me:

I always loved when teachers took time to talk with me alone, not only during class, but on the playground or in the classroom during lunchtime. Starting in sixth grade and even now, I sometimes have nothing to do during lunch, so I sit in a teacher’s classroom. It’s always great to have a nice conversation with a teacher! I get extra help with my school work and I feel closer and more understood by my teachers. Also, I am always very impressed when teachers have “studied up” on me and know the goals and accommodations in my IEP. Some teachers don’t do this. When they do, I feel like they really care enough to find out how to best teach me and that makes me feel important. I like teachers that can explain concepts really well so I do not have to reread or ask too many questions during a lecture. Shorter sentences are easier to understand than long ones. But, if I do need to ask questions, please don’t get annoyed or upset if I ask “too many” questions. Getting my questions answered does a lot to lessen my anxiety.

Another thing that teachers can do to help students with autism is to allow them to take a break when needed, as long as this privilege is not abused. When I am upset, or having trouble concentrating, I like to take a quick break to walk to the bathroom, and settle myself back down. This allows me to get back to learning much faster than being forced to sit in my seat when I’m upset! Finally, regardless of which grade I’ve been in, having a schedule for the class posted on the board is very important. It helps knowing what to expect during the period or day ahead.

Things that don’t help me:

As with every student, there are teachers that I have absolutely loved, and some that I haven’t gotten along with. Personalities can clash and teaching/learning styles may not match. Switching teachers is usually not an option. I have an increased respect for teachers that I don’t fit well with who recognize this and try to make the school year the best that it can be despite the circumstances. For example, talking with me to find a way for better communication or making a code word if I need a break.

This next one mostly applies to English teachers. I feel so overwhelmed when a teacher hands back an essay or other paper, and it seems like EVERY SINGLE WORD is marked up for mistakes. Even if a paper is that bad, just simply write “come see me, and we can discuss this in more detail.” Also, teachers - please make sure to write positive comments on papers as well. I never like getting a paper with no positive comments and a bunch of negative comments. Finally, this one may be asking for a lot. For many years, the standard correction pen for school work has been a red pen. I associate the color red with negativity. And yes, if a mistake needs to be corrected, that’s fine. But, if teachers can try to possibly use another pen color, it would make a huge difference. I remember one time when my teacher forgot her red pen, my paper had the same amount of mistakes, but I felt much better when I got my paper back. Finally, I didn’t favor any teachers that called me out and corrected me in front of other students. This was embarrassing and gave me the impression that I wasn’t as good as the other students. As a student with autism, I take criticism very personally and many times feel like the criticism is directed at me and not at my work.

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be a teacher by yourself with a room full of many students, no matter what the age is, and especially if some or many of the students have special needs. I really appreciate teachers that take the time to figure out what works best and what doesn’t work for particular students.