“Boundaries with love and relationship are key for teachers working with autistic and special needs children.”
By Ron Sandison
My sister-in-law, a two-time teacher of the year winner for her county, has sixteen years of experience. Her first teaching assignment lasted only two weeks. She was hired as an assistant teacher of a class to teach students on the autism spectrum. After ten days of being hit, bit, scratched, and spit on, one of the students in her class cried, “I want my mommy!”
My sister-in-law said to her co-teacher, “I want my mommy also!” as she made her MacGyver-like escape.
Teaching students with autism and disabilities is hard work, requiring love and dedication combined with patience and perseverance. I commend every teacher who invests his or her time figuring out each student’s unique needs and strategies to best educate them.
Here are 5 tips that may help teachers.
1. Develop a friendship with your student by understanding his or her special interests.
Yale professor James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” When I was in elementary school Ms. Michelle would bring me plastic squirrels and animals toys. Ms. Michelle’s showing interest in my love for animals resulted in me behaving in her classroom and being an attentive listener. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Ms. Michelle prepared my mind and heart to be open to learning.
2. Offer positive feedback to the student before offering criticism.
When grading papers have positive comments at the beginning and end, offsetting the negative comments. If a paper is poorly written instead of covering it in red ink, write, “Please come see me and we can discuss it in more detail.”
Teachers should consider using a different pen color than red, maybe blue or green, for corrections since students with autism associate red ink with failure and negativity. Often autistic students take everything personally and have difficulty handling constructive criticism which can lead to a meltdown. When a student is putting forth effort, reward him or her with sticks or a small tangible reward. You can purchase rewards from the dollar store.
3. Build confidence in your student to interact socially.
Students on the autism spectrum tend to fail at social graces and misinterpret communication cues. One fun social-skill building game you can play in your class is “Would You Rather?” You play by simply answering the question would you rather? For example, you can ask your students the question would you rather be Batman or Superman followed by why. Another good question could be, would you rather be Obi Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker and why. This simple exercise teaches children how to take turns, communicate ideas, shift topics, and gives a structure to conversations.
4. Understand your student’s strengthens and weaknesses and adjust your teaching methods accordingly.
Many children with autism and learning disabilities have more than just one disability which can hinder their education and social development. I had great difficulty in high school and elementary school learning phonetically due to auditory processing disorder (APD) and dyslexia. My freshman year of high school, I received a D in Spanish class due to my inability to learn a foreign language by phonetic repetition. Three different times in this class the teacher gave me a detention for behavioral problems. My inability to learn Spanish caused me to misbehave by making inappropriate jokes and swearing.
In college at ORU, during my Master of Divinity program, I took Biblical Greek for three years and had a perfect 4.0 GPA since I learned the language not by phonetics but visually with vocabulary and grammatical flashcards which enabled me to use my great memory gift.
5. Understand your student’s sensory issues that may trigger meltdowns.
Sensory issues can hinder students with unique learning needs. It is important to prevent sensory overload which can result in negative behavior, fear, anxiety, withdrawal, increased repetitive behavior, tantrums or a complete meltdown in the classroom. The majority of us pay little attention to our senses. When we feel cold, we put on a sweater. When music is too loud, we turn down the volume. For some children, senses provide unreliable information, causing great discomfort and anxiety. They may experience sensory issues with touch, sound, taste, smell, or sight. Ask your student or their parents if he or she has any sensory issues. Take note of environmental triggers.
Recognize warning signals for a tantrum or meltdown. Be alert and monitor these responses: pacing, hyperactivity, increased anxiety or agitation, hand-to-face repetitive motions, rocking back-and-forth, jumping side-to-side, intensified internal stimuli (talking to themselves), or excessive stimming (self-stimulatory behavior for soothing).
When teaching students with autism have a schedule for the class posted on the board. It helps the student to know what to expect during the day, reducing his or her anxiety and stress.
The best teachers for those on the autism spectrum have tight boundaries with a softness of heart—a perfect combination of structure yet also nurturing.
Stephanie Holmes whose daughter has Asperger’s says, “Boundaries with love and relationship are key for teachers working with autistic and special needs children.”
Always remember the best way to connect with your students is through love and acceptance.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org