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Autism: Part 1

Today’s blog is about Autism. I intend to provide research, advice and personal experiences to help with managing autistic students in a creative classroom setting. What is it?


Google’s definition: A serious developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. Autism spectrum disorder impacts the nervous system. Robert Sneddon’s definition: “A person with Autism have a brain that has developed differently. They do not see the world in the same way that a person without Autism sees it. This means that a person with Autism may have difficulty communicating with other people and forming relationships with them.” P. 8 Explaining Autism, Robert Sneddon (2008)

Through an autistic perspective

Retrieved from Robert Sneddon’s Explaining Autism (2008), page 9, “Describing Autism: A person with autism described the condition like this: ‘Reality to an autistic person is a confusing mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. There seems to be no clear boundaries, order or meaning to anything. A large part of my life is spent just trying to work out the pattern behind everything’.”

My perspective(s) from a teacher of NCEA

I love all the students who have come and gone from my classroom(s). They are all filled with different personalities, opinions, hobbies, interests, skills, beliefs and understandings of the world. I have met students with disabilities, trauma survivors, and perfectionists. I have met shy students, anxious students and over confident ones. The list could go on, and it does. Each and every student is unique and this is because they are quite simply: just people. Young people. And like all everyday people, they are different in their own ways, made up of different genes, and have developed mentally and physically in a way unique to them. So I believe first and foremost, as I discuss Autism through my teaching perspective, that there is no exact way to teach students that works for all, and this most definitely includes students with autistic components. So throughout this blog I will share experiences and techniques that have worked in the moment, but it is important to know one technique and one experience may not work for some, but then they might be just what the student(s) needed.

I hope I can help.

Autistic common interactions, responses and behaviourisms:

Note: I’d like to point out that the following list is just what I have noticed in my classroom over the years with a variety of autistic students who were sitting at different levels of the autistic spectrum.

– comfortable with technology. May need it for emotional support e.g. carry around a laptop, tablet, cellphone to comfort them or use if directly associating with people is too overwhelming – greets me immediately and wants to share specific details about something they enjoy before settling into class (sitting in front of the white board) – devised work (creation) is easily explored when they are interested in the subject. E.g. they make up a scene based on time travel where they visit World War 2, but will struggle with the same task if they have to time travel to the Jurassic era – collaboration becomes difficult when things are changed or not explored on their terms e.g. other students will approach me flustered that the autistic student won’t collaborate/cooperate, yet when I ask for the autistic student’s version of the situation they will say things like “she won’t do what I have told her to do” , “I’m not doing that”, “that is not what we said we were going to do” – loud and over stimulated environments are overwhelming and may be the cause for unpredictable or acceptable behaviour e.g. swearing, yelling, storming off, throwing things, crying – loud and over stimulated environments are overwhelming and may them to zone out, withdrawl, retreat to technology and/or physically leave group and try to stay near me instead – only want to work with particular people and not others e.g. they may have a student in the class who has taken on a responsibility to look after them, so to speak. Without them they feel lost, unable to cope or comprehend doing work, feeling of injustice and betrayal if they can’t work with the supportive student – needs a quick recap of how the day will pan out once everyone goes off and starts activity as the over stimulus and amount of people nearby has distracted them – needs to see things physically in an orderly manner to concentrate e.g. everyone is sitting in front of the whiteboard, when the students break off into groups they are in distinguishable places in the room working together (without roaming or unfocused play fighting). When they don’t see this, they are likely to comment on it – they like to know exact times we are completing tasks and what will come next e.g. countdowns “3 minutes to go”, “3 minutes until I will ask you to sit in the audience space, ready to perform your drama piece” – when receiving compliments and encouragement, it is usually taken on board to internally appreciate rather than celebrated with other students e.g. a student without autism may blush or high five their friends nearby, an autistic person may say “thank you” or “yep” or nod and then continue what they are doing without expressing external joy – they like to focus on one specific task in the classroom and do not like other people doing the task as well or may believe the task is of high importance and any other task is of lesser value e.g. if I assign technology / lighting to an autistic student (lighting and technology being one of the last components of developing a production), they may wish to turn off all the lights and practice the spotlight transitions immediately while other groups are in the classroom planning their pieces. They may also expect groups to focus solely on the lighting cues and not wish to participate in other areas – they are comfortable working and performing on their own without anxiety or stage fright. They are goal driven to perform, express and share their passions with the class. When completed on their own, they tend to have a strong beginning, middle and end framework that is carefully planned out. They also have a tendency to have a planned script in their head which has been developed in an improvised fashion (rehearsed practically without writing it down). Technologies are quite detailed e.g. elaborate sets, symbolic lighting choices (red for angry character, blue for sad character that they play in a one man show fashion) – they will have an external dialogue with themselves/indirectly with me to balance their understanding of something that is happening that is uncomfortable for them e.g. “I think I’m not going to hop out of the car today. It is not good weather. I don’t think I will go there today. I think I will just stay here in the car instead. Yeah that’s probably a good idea. I will stay in the car today instead. Yep, that’s what I will do.”

Triad of Impairments

Richard Sneddon discusses autism in a triad of impairments: Social problems, communication problems, lack of imagination P 17

Social problems:

“The person with autism will find it difficult to interact with other people socially and be unable to chat with others. Some talk at length about their special interests and do not give any space to others to join in. They will seem not to know what behaviour is appropriate in different circumstances. They will not readily form friendships with other people.” (Sneddon, 2008, p17)

It is interesting that autistic people can develop their own worlds. I wonder if by chance it is a safe place where they can process what they notice in reality, similar to how our own triggers work (freeze, fight or flight systems). I have found by encouraging the integration of the two worlds, more learning and understanding can be taken place safely. I knew a year 7 student (11 years old at the time) who’s world was centralised around the Jurassic era. If there was a dinosaur alive in that time, she knew what they were and their attributes in great detail. When moving her away from her world, she would often become so overwhelmed that she would cry excessively. If I integrated the interest into her work, she would perform the task often to a high standard. This student understood how to plan, select, devise, rehearse, perform and reflect on her drama piece. She added detailed and elaborate sets where she used recycled materials and costumes to make swamp like trees, broken tree stumps, hills and even hollow caves. She used all components of her acting techniques to be dinosaurs, cave men characters and explorers travelling back in time. She could make different tones and genres such as documentaries, mockumentaries, dramas and comedies. The student was able to include drama conventions such as narration (and address the audience confidently, while in role – equipped with accents, body postures etc.), flashbacks and slow motion.

However, given another theme or a task that was not managed by herself and rather in a collaborative setting, it was incredibly overwhelming for her.

What can happen:

We can fall into the trap of making things easier in the moment by allowing them to completely live in these worlds to learn. We do this so we can see their potential and can upskill them, but it is through convenience. I do understand that this is a great way to have them participate in the moment, but it won’t benefit them long term. It is important to provide them with a mixture of situations so they are capable of resilience and basic life skills (and communicating their needs and making personal goals) outside of school life.

You can still do this with a minor influence of their interest as a buy in.

So how do we upskill a student that cannot comprehend a different way of learning and participating?

(With the student that enjoyed the Jurassic era as a reference)

– easing the issues with repetition and structure:

Letting her know that she must contribute everyday and be a minor role in the group’s activity but every Friday she is to develop her own devised drama by herself. This might mean that the first day or two isn’t a successful day of participation, but maybe she sits in the scene without lines and she is a dinosaur alarm clock or the main character’s dinosaur pet. Although she is not particularly upskilling her acting techniques in that lesson, she is learning the value of group work, which is in many ways more important when it comes to learning how to perform a successful drama. After sometime, I’d increase the weekly goal to having one line and then two lines and then a short conversation and so forth until they are working at a level that demonstrates that she can collaborate with others successfully.

– always return to the basics (A further discussion to our first point) It is also so important not to take short cuts with learning. There is nothing wrong with going back to the beginning and setting those basic skills in stone. I find if I don’t do that, that I end up having a very unpredictable outcome and I end up having to think on my feet a lot. If I know I have returned to the basics, I can make sound judgements and teach quality work because I am aware of a student’s capabilities completely.

– explain yourself / play by play

If there’s one thing we know well about autism, it is that students with autism need order and warning. It doesn’t take long and it also makes you consider your own planning and why you chose certain activities for your students. It makes things more purposeful and more comprehendible for all students as well. What you need to do is every time you are going to do something or get the students to do something, you explain why it needs to be done, how long they’ll do it for, who will be involved and how many times they will do it for, and reminding them of past occurrences of the same activity/theme/experience. You may find yourself repeating the same structures everyday and the reminding part will help them see order. When they determine the pattern, things become more predictable and they will ease into the experience and likely participate more. e.g. “We always start the day with everyone sitting in front of the whiteboard. I have written a question on the board that I would like answered, by you sharing your opinions about the question. When you share your answers, I will put the answers on the board. I do this everyday so that while you are planning your work, you can look at the whiteboard for ideas if you are ever stuck. I ask for ideas from everyone so there is more ideas to choose from, rather than just my own. So I need you to help others in the classroom and share your ideas so it helps them to plan their scene with the rest of their group.” I would intentionally say the same thing again the next day and a shortened version another time, so this skill is reinforced.

If I immediately asked the autistic student to share an answer, they may become overwhelmed and either withdrawl or may reply but not participate throughout the rest of the lesson (as the overwhelming mental processing may take over their ability to concentrate in class)

If they were to enter the class. I would let them know informally “Great to see you [student’s name], we will start the day in front of the whiteboard. Have a look at the question while you wait for the others to join you.” Although it is likely they will ignore part of the instruction and want to let me know about something they are interested in as a way of saying hello to me, I should notice that the transition into this skill will happen comfortably and won’t cause much disruption for the following transition into the next activity too.

– having a notebook of their own with what they need to do each day

If they have a broken down version of their day in a notebook, they can go through “today’s page” easily. They will read through the six goals of the lesson and can check them off as they go so they see predictably happen e.g. Item 1: answer question on the board with the class. Must provide one answer for Mrs O’Neill to write on the board. Item 2: take laptop and sit in the foyer and plan my work with my group. Item 3: Fill in the blanks about my scene: My group has decided to make a scene about… [student fills in the blank space], my character is [student fills in the blank space], when I am in the scene I am [student fills in blank about what they are doing in the scene]. Item 4: Rehearse my scene with my group Item 5. When the teacher says to come and sit down, I will sit down in the audience space. Item 5: I will watch other groups’ scenes and perform my own when it is our group’s time to perform. My group is the [order number e.g. 3rd, 4th] group to perform today. Item 6: I will share one thing I liked about a performance I saw today, with the class. Item 7: I will pack up my belongings and go to the next class when the teacher says we can go.

Communication problems:

“The person with autism can have difficulties in understanding and interpreting other people’s feelings. They do not pick up on facial expression, body language, or tone of voice so they do not pick up on mood, such as knowing if the person is talking to them is happy, angry or sad. Some have problems with grammar and vocabulary but others have fluent speech – their difficulty lies in the way they use their speech.” (Sneddon, 2008, p17)

How to remedy the conflicts associated with communication:

(With reference to a student that enjoyed WW1 and WW2 as a reference)

– explaining

This one is a hard one to teach. It really is a hit or miss. I often find telling students to look at a student’s face and then explain to them the emotion they are seeing and how the other student is feeling to the autistic student helps. This will also apply with how to communicate when people are not making decisions e.g. “See how Jess and Kirby are facing each other when they talk. Kirby is listening to Jess share her ideas. Kirby isn’t yelling at Jess, she is listening and will give being a fairy a go in her scene. I’d like to see you imitate Kirby and not yell. Try standing there and listen to what Bianca is saying. When she is finished it is your turn to share your ideas and Bianca will not yell and she will listen to what you’d like to do in the scene.”

– giving them two options that has repetition involved

rather than discussing things in present moments with them (e.g. “what would you like to choose today?”), you could provide them with the option of the whole week and that way they see there is a pattern and order (e.g. “what would you like to choose for the week? I would like to see you on stage every day and so I need you to decide what character you would like to be.”). Even though the options may change each day for them, depending on how they are feeling, having the certainty of knowing they will perform each day will ease the overwhelming tendencies. You can reinforce it each day as well by saying things like, “On Monday you chose to be an army soldier in your scenes this week, will you be building a trench again today for your scene or would you like to do something else?”

– provide a compromise that includes a far fetched version with their interest involved, even if it doesn’t make sense so they see it is important to collaborate and go with the ideas that the whole group have decided together so they can move onto the devising and rehearsal process e.g. “The group have all decided to devise a romantic prom scene. I know you don’t want to be in a scene about romance and dancing, but I know they need someone to man the door of the school hall in case intruders come in. So as a compromise, we will need you to be the bouncer checking tickets and any tickets that are not school students, you will have to report it to your sergeant and remove them safely from the building.”

– use the notebook to help settle conflict in a group. If they won’t cooperate because they aren’t getting their way and the compromised scenario doesn’t work, then reverting back to the notebook may reinforce the order they are meant to follow e.g. “Which item number are you up to in this lesson?” “Item 3” “Excellent, so you are creating a character for your scene. Have you written your character’s name into your notebook? You usually write your character’s name in everyday. I remember yesterday your character’s name was Sergeant Johnson, let me just look in your notebook to check, yes that was his name. Are you sticking with this character or are you going to make up a new one today?” Nods. “Great! So let’s find a way Sergeant Johnson can be in this scene, without changing what the group have decided so far, because they have worked hard together with you to come up with these ideas and it is important to listen and work with others too. I like that we practice our group work skills everyday.”

Lack of imagination:

“Some people with autism will not engage in games or activities that involve the use of imagination and may prefer repetitive activities. Some copy the imaginative activities of other children, but without any real understanding. Others invent their own imaginary worlds, which may be very elaborate, but are not shared with others.” (Sneddon, 2008, p17)

This could go in both directions in the Drama classroom and other creative subjects. As I mentioned earlier with the dinosaur enthusiast / student, she was more than capable of making up a scene inside of her beautifully crafted world, and then I have also had autistic students that just need to follow what their support student is doing.

Creation is one of the highest forms of intelligence and skills to teach so I would just tread open-mindedly with creation. It may happen successfully and it may not. As I have discussed in the other components of the triad, it is good to try work with a balance of comfortability and new experiences. You may also find an autistic student enjoys creation the way one of my students loved WW1 and WW2.

Some ways to help with creation:

– use cue cards and pictures to help with choices for the week / each day

– have choices in two columns and match up the ones that would work

– put their favourite thing in the middle of a brainstorm and venture out into different possibilities that would work and wouldn’t work (try bringing to life the ideas that wouldn’t work for fun, you’ll be surprised what end up actually working)

– use the notebook and have suggestions in the back of it to try. Make sure they are vague and can be used in many situations e.g. escape a situation, go on an adventure, confront someone, confess something to someone you care about, stop someone before they do the wrong thing, solve a mystery, right a wrong, steal something, interrupt an important event (e.g. wedding, funeral, baby shower)

– run a bus stop rotation with correct timing (5 minutes to create, 2 minutes to show the class). If explained prior, the repetition and order will help keep them focused and they will enjoy repeating what they’ve seen or developing their own stuff.

Well that’s that. This blog was rather longer than intended, but I hope it was informative. Remember to treat all students as the individuals that they are. Always get to know who they are and how their mind’s work and you would have won half the battle. Students want to show you who they are and they want to trust you to help them learn safely. Students love relationships and the ones they have with their role models will influence how they behave and respect others in life outside of school as well.

If you have an autistic student in their class, don’t be afraid to ask them about their own journey and what works for them. If they can communicate this to you, they often will want to. Don’t be afraid to ask their parents/caregivers also. It is likely they will be on board with gaining the most out of their child’s learning and want to support you the best that they can too.

We all deserve to be understood and we all deserve an education.

Time, experience, manaakitanga.

Tovah O’Neill.

References: Sneddon, R. (2008). Explaining Autism. Publisher: Franklin Watts: London, 2008 (pp. 8, 9, 17)


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