But What Else Could You Say? Part II

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A Look at How to Teach Staff Members to Better Understand Students with Autism


After I spent time trying to reframe the way Bill was using language in his head in my previous post, I started to notice ways staff members and I were using language when interacting with the students.

Many of my students have classic autism. My coworkers and I have experience and training regarding autism spectrum disorder. And yet, we continue to fail them in many ways.

I strongly feel that we need to act as translators between our students and the world. There is a marked difference between an autistic view of the world and a typical view of the world. If you love someone with autism, you have a twofold responsibility: First, work to teach the person with autism how to make sense of the typical world. Second, work to teach the typical world strategies to better relate to neuro-diverse populations. When there is conflict between the ‘worlds,’ I liken it to a cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When a student with autism repeatedly pushes to the front of the line in the cafeteria : Misunderstanding.

When a student with autism hits someone who questions him about his day: Misunderstanding.

You get the idea.

I have to take a quick paragraph to make a confession. Sometimes, I see something that I don’t like or that I don’t agree with and, instead of intervening, I observe to see what happens. I observe while pretending that I do not see or hear the negative interactions. The reason is this: I know I can’t control everything and I am curious about how different students might react to different, unplanned situations that somehow rock their autistic worlds. I use the information garnered from these situations to create structured lessons to teach students or staff members how we can all improve.

Ok, confession over.

Through clandestine ‘observations’ in the classroom, I have gathered some unofficial data. Over 90% of students’ negative behavior in the classroom is a result of cross-cultural misunderstandings. A big part of this is our response to behaviors/incidences that were happening OVER and OVER again and we are continually misunderstanding. Just like my student Bill, the language we are using to process events in the classroom is causing us to behave in an inappropriate (or at least ineffective) manner.

I observed a paraprofessional demand that a student ask for help in a store before allowing him to search for the item on his own. After he didn’t immediately construct a proper question on his AAC device, she commandeered the iPad. Then, frustrated with the software, she instead required him to spell the words she couldn’t find without giving him the chance to hold his own device and search through his vocabulary. The student shouted, swung his arms, and eventually almost struck her. He had to leave the store without making his purchase. When I asked the staff member what happened, she said, “_______ didn’t want to buy it so he freaked out.”

I saw a student picking his nose. A staff member practically pounced on him with a tissue and hand sanitizer from his periphery while shouting ‘No!”. The student shrieked and bit his hand firmly. When I asked what happened, the staff said, “I don’t want to get sick. He needs to use a tissue.”

I saw a student grab and pinch the arm of a staff member who snuck up behind her and pushed her in until her chest was pressed against the edge of the table. Apparently she wasn’t close enough to the table previously for the staff member’s taste. This was during ‘down time’ in the classroom.

This is just a taste of cross-cultural misunderstandings that I observed in the last week or two. I feel frustrated and confused about the disparity between the situations I observed and the staff members’ explanations of what happened. I realized that they are honestly perceiving the situations in the way they describe them to me.

Our speech pathologist often explains that everyone uses verbal scripts, internalized in our heads, in order to complete basic routines and respond in situations. I need to access those scripts in the heads of people who work with these students and make adjustments. I need to do this without accusing anyone of wrongdoing or making anyone feel wrong or mean. Again, these are cross-cultural misunderstandings born out of ignorance. I need to work to educate and make sense of why behaviors are happening.

Perhaps it would help if I made a similar visual like I made for my student Bill. Again, I am using a fictional student, Bill, to illustrate the point.

What I think: The student feels: I Should think:
I told Bill what we were going to do, and Bill acted out. It is obvious that Bill doesn’t want to participate in this activity. I don’t understand what I am supposed to do .I am so confused and now you are trying to rush me, which is making me feel even more anxious. And you won’t stop TALKING and pointing. Maybe if I hit you, you will give me some space and quiet. I have to assume the student would complete the task if he was able. What could be going on? Maybe he doesn’t understand the task or the expectation, or he is confused about what will happen next. I will clarify expectations (visually, if possible, with pictures or modeling) and review a mini-schedule of the current expectation with the student. If I am also confused by the task or expectation, I should clarify with the classroom teacher.
Bill walked in to the bathroom, pulled his pants down and started to use the toilet while I was in there grooming with another student! I am shocked! How could a student act like this? This is so inappropriate. He could be ARRESTED. I need to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I am allowed to use the bathroom when other people are in there. Sometimes I am not allowed to do this. Sometimes I am corrected if I wait in the hallway instead of entering the bathroom. I don’t understand the rules and right now I REALLY need to go, so that’s what I’m going to do. I know I think this would be shocking behavior for a neuro-typical student. However, Bill doesn’t have the same boundaries or understandings about social norms. Why might he be confused about the expectation in this circumstance? How can we teach him how to respond appropriately in future situations? Could I predict this happening in the future and use pre-alerts to help the student process it differently next time?
Bill has his fingers in his nose AGAIN. That is so disgusting. I have told him a thousand times! I am going to rush over, shout at him to use a tissue, pull his chair out, and demand he wash his hands immediately. I am trying to work on the computer but…something in my nose is uncomfortable. I will take care of that while continuing to work on the computer. I am supposed to follow the computer directions and I am doing awesome on this…WHAT THE HELL? Bill may have been taught the rule, but he hasn’t generalized it. It is also obvious that he has difficulty focusing on more than one thing at a time and he places much less value on conforming to social norms. I will use visuals and gentle verbal cues to remind him that he needs to use a tissue and wash his hands. If he is learning something new or especially challenging, I will ignore the socially ‘disgusting’ behavior in order to allow Bill to focus on his new skill. I understand that we need to try to teach one thing at a time and we can’t practically address everything all of the time!

These viewpoints are slightly exaggerated but I don’t think they are exaggerated by much. Now that I have processed this idea more clearly, I think I could put together a staff training/activity and leave either the middle or right columns blank—or both! I could add in some fictional situations as well and collaborate with other teachers to make the examples more applicable to life in different classrooms.

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