1) Autistic people can learn a lot from Neurotypicals
We learn through imitation. Nowhere is this more obvious than when an adult leans over a baby’s pram, smiling and muttering nonsense like ‘ooohh hello baby, coochi co’. What are they hoping for? That the baby will copy their behaviour by smiling back and attempting to communicate with them. Children also learn a lot from each other. Many parents have raised concerns that if their child attends a special school for kids with autism then they are likely to start picking up more autistic behaviour from other pupils. I went to a mainstream school. Although I would have benefited from more autism friendly teaching, it was helpful for me to observe neurotypical children, determine what aspects of my behaviour made them feel uncomfortable and what I need to do in order to fit into society. Of course, some autistic people might not want to modify their behaviour, and that’s ok too.
2) Neurotypicals can learn a lot from autistic people
I strongly believe that the best way to learn about autism is to ask an autistic person (such as myself) how their disability effects their daily life. Autistic people also have a lot to teach others about how we learn. During group projects I’ve often been frustrated by the disinterestedness of my neurotypical peers. Why couldn’t they be like me, fascinated by the minute details instead of focusing on the bigger picture, and able to concentrate for hours on something they were passionate about? This kind of learning style wasn’t necessarily appropriate for GCSEs, but the higher up the education ladder you go (A levels, university) the more narrow and specific the area of study becomes. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to achieve first class honours at university if I didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome.
3) Some people with autism are monotopic sensory processors
Montopic sensory processing means that in certain situations, someone can only focus on using one sense at a time. The other senses don’t disappear, they just fade into the background. For example: in order to really focus on what their teacher is saying, an autistic child might look at the ground or look at their desk, so that they can just focus on the voice. Sadly, most teachers don’t know about monotopic processing, and when they see the slack jaw and glazed eyes of an autistic pupil they assume that they’re not paying attention. Some of my teachers wouldn’t even speak to me unless I gave them direct eye contact. This made it much harder for me to learn, as I was focusing on what the teacher looked like rather than what they were saying. It wasn’t until university that people finally twigged what was going on, with my support worker writing in an annual report ‘G will often appear as though she is not listening- but she always is.’
4) Autism is NOT a learning disability
I must have spent half my life repeating this. Autism is not a learning disability, nor is it a learning difficulty. To most people learning disability and learning difficulty mean the same thing. But I have heard many specialists use the term ‘learning difficulty’ in the context of autism because autistic people often learn in different ways to neurotypicals and might require different teaching styles. Surely the term ‘learning difference’ would be a more appropriate way to describe a difference in information and sensory processing? Autism itself has no effect on the IQ. People on the autism spectrum are not more or less intelligent than your average neurotypical, we just learn in different ways and often have different interests. Autism is a social awareness and communication disability. But it gets lumped in with learning difficulties so often that during school I was given remedial lessons in reading and spelling, when what I actually needed was lessons in how to understand and communicate effectively with my fellow classmates. During my reading lessons teachers got me to read aloud from books with two lines of text and a big cartoon picture. Then I’d go home and read Bram Stokers Dracula or JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I will never understand why so many teachers assumed I was learning impaired, when all I did was act a little differently to my classmates.
5) Most people with autism are visual learners
I’m not going to go into much detail on this point, as I myself am not a visual learner. I learn best through reading, writing and doing. However, I’m aware that statistically most people on the autism spectrum are visual learners, so it was certainly worth mentioning. For someone with classical or Kanner’s autism, picture diaries can be very useful. This involves a picture sequence to represent what a child will be doing during the day (ie: breakfast, car, school, book) to help minimise fear of the unknown and create a solid routine. Picture cards (ie: a card with a photo of a cup on to show a child wants a drink) can also be a godsend for non-verbal children, providing them with an alternative method of communication.
6) Damage control won’t resolve our issues or teach us anything
During school my black and white thinking and difficulty empathising meant I found it difficult to maintain friendships and often got into arguments with my friends about the smallest things. My teachers were terrified that I might have a meltdown. Instead of explaining where I went wrong or helping me understand the views of others, they just agreed with everything I said to keep me quiet. When I say everything- I mean everything, no matter how cruel or selfish it was. On the surface, this attitude may seem like making allowances for my autism. It wasn’t. It was just damage control. I did have fewer meltdowns, but because I was never challenged, I did not learn or develop socially for several years, and I am still behind most people my age. If the autistic child you are caring for exhibits difficult behaviour- please don’t just limit meltdowns. Try to challenge their behaviour until you get the appropriate response. This will cause a great deal of anxiety at first- but I promise they will thank you for it later.
7) Autistic people often focus on small details, struggling to condense information or see the bigger picture
I wouldn’t say this tendency to focus on detail is a bad thing, but it does mean that autistic students often end up working much harder than their neurotypical peers. I have several memories of handing in a whole page of text, and being criticised by my teachers because they had only required a couple of lines, or a paragraph at maximum. They expressed concern that I was focusing too much on one subject and not leaving enough time for the others. Mostly this wasn’t the case. I just couldn’t summarise, and it would have taken me far longer to condense my ideas into a few sentences than it did to write out a few pages. At university I probably spent more time trying to reduce the word count of my essays than I did writing them in the first place. But as long as I allowed myself the time to do this, it wasn’t a problem. Difficulty summarising can become a problem during exams, due to time constraints. If you are concerned that this might be a problem for an autistic pupil, you can ask for extra time during exams. Or, better yet, sit down with them and work on summarising information and picking the most important points out of a text.
8) Autistic people struggle to understand sarcasm, metaphors and similes
If it were up to me, sarcasm would be made illegal and autistic people all over the world would have a much easier time. That’s not possible, but I would suggest you avoid using sarcasm if you are talking to someone you know who is on the autism spectrum. The reason we struggle with sarcasm has nothing to do with intelligence (though people often respond to this struggle by thinking we have the intelligence of a small child). For a neurotypical, it’s easy to pick up on the subtle changes in facial expression and vocal tone that someone employs when using sarcasm. For someone with autism, this is virtually impossible. Similes and metaphors can also be a problem for autistic people, because they take simple information and render it in a way that can be quite complicated for literal thinkers who tend to focus on detail. Metaphors do have their place, but that’s in poetry and literature- not in your lesson plan.
9) Autistic people will take your instructions very literally
As mentioned earlier, autistic people are literal thinkers. For example: when I was at university my lecturer gave out a list of a hundred books to read in the space of two weeks. I tried to read them all, and after a couple of sleepless nights in the library I sent an angry, all caps email to my lecturer explaining that the task he’d set was impossible. He responded calmly, stating that he didn’t expect anyone to read all the books on the list. Why had he handed out that list in the first place then? Apparently it was to encourage students to start reading outside class, and pick out a couple of volumes that were relevant to their area of study. But the list said read all the books. So I read all the books. If you are giving out instructions to someone with autism, make sure they are clear, direct and unambiguous. Don’t give them an impossible task and expect them to only complete half of it. Tell them exactly what they need to do, and how to do it, without leaving room for interpretation. We cannot read between the lines like you can.
10) Autistic people make great students
Despite the common assumption that autism is a learning difficulty, I have met more adults with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in university than in any other setting. Most of them excelled, often achieving higher grades than their neurotypical classmates. We might struggle, and we will require a slightly different approach, but children and adults with autism make great students.