“HI ANDREW. I LIKE YOUR NEW BLUE T-SHIRT. IS THAT BLUE? WHAT COLOR IS YOUR SHIRT? BLUE? DO YOU REMEMBER MY NAME? CAN YOU SAY KAYLA? SAY MY NAME. NO, NO NO. SAY KAY-LA. KAY-LA. GOOOOOOOD! NICE TALKING WITH YOU. CAN I HAVE A HIGH-FIVE? THAT’S SO CUTE. I’LL SEE YOU LATER, ANDREW. CAN YOU SAY BYE? BYE, KAYLA? OK, BYE ANDREW!”
If you teach people with developmental disabilities, the above script is probably familiar. I’m sure you can imagine a number of individuals, including other staff members and typical peers, having a similar conversation with one of your students. This situation makes me cringe for a number of reasons, number one being that the offender usually has good intentions.
He is trying to make an effort. He is trying to engage with your student. And yet, he is doing it wrong.
When you interact with a person with a significant disability, here are some Dos and Don’ts that you should keep in mind.
|DO speak in a normal volume. If the student has a hearing loss, speak with the teacher about strategies you could use so the student can better understand you.||DON’T shout. Unless the student has hearing loss, shouting will not help him to understand you. Loud sounds may be upsetting to other students.|
|DO speak to the student about age-appropriate topics that might be relevant. Use complete sentences and age-appropriate language.||DON’T speak to the student like he is a baby. He may be developmentally similar to a younger child, but he has many years of experience at that level.|
|DO encourage the student to use your name to gain your attention and other appropriate social niceties when interacting with you. Ask the student’s teacher about how to encourage social communication.||DON’T treat the student like someone you have trained to do a trick. Maybe the student can say your name—so what? Don’t make the student say it over and over again when it isn’t functional.|
|DO expect the student to follow social rules. If there is a line in the cafeteria, the student should also learn to wait in line rather than being ushered to the front. If the student wants a cookie but doesn’t have the money to buy one, don’t let someone else buy him one!||DON’T laugh at a student for making a mistake or committing a social blunder. If the student is aware that what he did wasn’t socially appropriate, he may feel bad. If he isn’t aware, then he may continue to do the behavior in order to make you laugh. Both situations are not ideal!|
|DO speak to the student in a conversational manner when appropriate. Talk to him normally about how your day is going, what you are doing later, etc. Use language, volume, and intonation that you would use with a typical person.||DON’T always expect a response. If you are using a lot of language around someone with classic autism, he may be listening but may be overwhelmed if you expect him to keep up or respond to your stream of consciousness.|
|DO use short, concrete sentences when giving instructions or asking a direct question. Supplement with visuals or provide a model when possible.||DON’T give a long set of directions, sigh when the student doesn’t seem to understand, and then just do it all for the student. Give the student a chance to be successful!|
|DO sometimes join them in their world. This is particularly directed for students with autism. I spent an entire 1:1 session with a student the other day saying “Whoops!” over and over again with the student. It was the best connection and most rewarding session I have had with that student in quite a while.||DON’T force a student to look you in the eye or keep the student from stimming. Eye contact may be incredibly difficult for the student, and stimming might be the student’s method for organizing and making sense of the environment.|
Remember that everyone with classic autism is unique, and all of these rules may not apply! Use what seems to work in your situation and have fun getting to know your student. He will have a lot to teach you if you give him the chance.