Education is defined by dictionary.com as: 1) The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for “mature” (complete in natural growth or development) life.
What is Education?
After nearly a decade and a half of focusing and collaborating on the education of my son with autism, I can say unequivocally the single most important purpose of education throughout the years is to deliver the knowledge and skills that generally prepare the youngster for his adult life. The challenge is for us – school teachers, behaviorists and parents, as I am my child’s first and forever “teacher” – is to use learning opportunities that exist at school to specifically teach my child relevant real life skills he needs and to enable him to use these skills to his best ability in all environments: at school, home and in the community, encompassing what I like to call the 3 “I”s ©: Interaction (communication and socialization); Independence (knowing what to do and how and when to do it, accountability, self-management, self-regulation); and Inclusion (being able to participate in settings and events as needed and/or desired, for: activities of daily living, as well as social, leisure/recreational and vocational purposes).
Is this really that different than what I expect in the development of my “typical” children? No, it’s not. However, my typically developing children will rely on their own skills as they are taught through lessons and experiences in school, home and community; skills such as observational learning, awareness of the people and events around them, reasoning skills, and more.
My child with autism lacks those skills, and so we, his teachers and I, must deliver to him an education that includes effective instruction and supports to provide him with the knowledge and skills he lacks. We must teach that which he needs in order to learn and to function at his best. That’s what’s provided for through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for special education to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities to be provided in the least restrictive environment.
So it seems imperative that the purpose of educating my child with autism is to use opportunities that exist in the least-restrictive environments in which he is capable of participating in order to teach to his needs.
Where Does Education Take Place?
These learning opportunities exist in the school, home and community, and so for my son that is where “education” needs to take place.
In school, we may use the general-ed math class, or resource room, or self-contained small group, and even the lunch room and/or walking-down-the-hallway-between-classes to teach and target those many varied real life skills that help my son “know what to do and how to do it.” These may include attending to teacher, complying with authority, awareness of people and events around him, engaging and participating in a group, acting in a socially acceptable way, being organized, self-reliant and accountable for assignments and responsibilities, and many more. These skills can be broken down into small measurable objectives and taught/enabled through effective instruction and tailored supports during the many teachable moments that exist in all environments in the school. Learning the academic subject matter in the classroom (the “core curriculum” or other lesson plan) does not have to be THE goal of that classroom or setting. Developing vital relevant real life skills to one’s greatest level of participation and independence can be the goal.
At home, adapting a focus on daily life that enables my son to learn to use those very same relevant real-life skills has been essential. Striving to use a proactive instructional approach in parenting (as opposed to reactive), and to provide supports (such as a to-do list, written cue card, or picture schedule) helps my son know on his own what to do and how to do it, and to provide enjoyable and rewarding (motivating) activities for his successes. This creates a home-life that promotes success and quality of life not only for him but for the whole family.
Outside of school and home, in the community, the same instruction and supports are vital for my son to use those same skills we’ve taught him with other people and in community events. Our plans enable my son’s continued gains in community settings, and this means greater participation in society, greater independence, and greater inclusion. Without plans to teach my son outside of home and school, he may manage through events and situations, but lacks the wherewithal to come to use the skills he possesses successfully.
This planned and purposeful approach to an “education of relevant real-life skills” by teachers and parent is a lifestyle for my son. He receives the same approach, the same assistance, and same expectations, from his educators and his parent. Without this lifestyle, my son would have learned what he “has to do in math class” and “this is what I do for my mother.” He would not be performing as successfully in more abstract and generalized ways those life-skills that enable him to know “what I have to do here/now/anywhere” and “how do I figure that out” and “how do I communicate effectively for what I want/need” in spite of his deficits and difficulties. Our lifestyle approach of educators and parent teaching to the same expectations, the same goals/skills 24/7 has indeed taught my son that this is the performance/conduct/ participation that “society” expects from you and this is how you can do it.
Simply put, his educators and parent together maximize the learning opportunities that exist in all environments, and with forethought, use a proactive approach that teaches him what we expect and what society expects, and provides him with supports that enable him to know for himself when and how to do as we expect. This is teaching him to participate in society to his greatest potential. This education is preparing him for success in life.
What Does Education Involve? Instruction and Motivation
The expectation or lesson we provide is through direct instruction toward a predetermined goal, delivered proactively (beforehand) not reactively, taught and practiced repeatedly, with supports if needed. In my son’s case, we provide visual instruction and supports: written rules, task analyzed steps in a process, social stories, check-lists, etc. These are designed to teach and enable my son to know by himself what to do and when to do it; in other words, to promote self-sufficiency as the immediate goal. “Independence” is not an acquisition to hope for in the future. Indeed, his future independence will look different than that of his typically developing siblings and peers. However, he is as self-reliant today as he can be, and a lifetime of daily living as self-sufficiently as possible will build an adulthood of greatest independence as possible. This education we deliver, comprised of instructions and supports, is done so as to truly enable him today and to build on his every-days toward his future. As he has learned and grown through the years, our instructions and support, once very direct and frequent and prominent, are now much more subtle, delivered via iPad and cell phone for visuals and semi-remote supervision. His on-going experiences and successes will allow us to continue to broaden his use of supports so as to enable his greatest functioning, his greatest independence and inclusion in life’s opportunities.
Incorporating effective motivation has been a crucial part of my son’s development; to give him a good reason to want to do what it is we want him to do. My son has a diminished awareness of others and of what is socially-acceptable, and a diminished need to fit in. Properly encouraging him in a way that is uniquely motivating to him makes the world of difference in his desire to do as we are teaching. Having him meet our expectations, which are achievable, incremental and staged for success, in order to earn his preferred activities is an essential component in his growth. Interestingly and excitingly, this has also served to develop in my son a feeling of self-satisfaction, an enjoyment of socially interacting, and a response to typical reinforcers such as a smile, praise, or free time or money as a reason to do those things teachers or parent or society expects from him. Tailoring a motivation system for him has enabled him to meet our expectations and allowed us to continuously raise the bar on our expectations through the years with his successes; broadening his world and resulting in him wanting to do things just because he’s meant to do them!
The educational instruction, including the use of supports and motivation, begun a decade and a half ago with the intent of increasing my son’s awareness of what is going on around him and how he is expected to participate, are succeeding at that throughout the years. This has broadened his learning abilities in that he has developed skills that were once upon a time non-existent, and he’s learning with greater ease in more “normal” ways. He is using his skills and rather charming personality, as well as his strengths and smarts, and meeting his tailored-academic goals, participating in school and community events, performing tasks for activities of daily living, and engaging in leisure/recreational situations and pre-vocational opportunities.
How Do We Develop the Relevant Real Life Goals in Home/School/Community?
Surely the most crucial component in education of my son with autism has been the collaboration of parent and educators (teachers and/or administration and/or behaviorists) so as to adapt a lifestyle that maximizes my child’s learning and engagement.
Where did we begin? We used the same focus in the beginning as we still use today. We take a good look at my child and his functioning in any/all environments:
- We identify relevant real life skills that are needed in the home, school and community. Through the years this has included, but not limited to: compliance, imitation skills, observational learning, socialization, coping and ability to self-regulate, knowing what to do (visual supports), accountability, and motivation. We think about my child’s needs and develop goals and objectives that are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. We then plan on how these skills can be taught in the school and home.
- We provide supports that enable my son to rely on himself. He uses these at school and home. These have been picture schedules, written to-do lists, rule cards, social stories, vibrating watch alarms, point systems, reward systems, behavior contracts, iPad calendars, cell-phone text messages, etc.
- We motivate, at school and home, by giving access to items or activities HE wants contingent upon his meeting our expectations.
- We continuously monitor, assess progress or lack-thereof, re-plan as needed and, very importantly, raise the bar with successes by adding more skills or broadening the use of current ones or finding more environments/situations for the skills to be used.
Where Do We Go From Here?
My son’s education has been, and continues to be, with the intent of delivering the knowledge and skills to generally prepare him for his adult life. Through the years, I have looked for avenues and opportunities to broaden his world and provide rewarding experiences, personally, socially, pre-vocationally, and recreationally. I try to honestly assess his needs, and his choices, his preferences, so as to help find avenues for enjoyment and purpose, and to provide the structure and supports he needs in order to be successful and thrive.
In some ways I can say the potential is unlimited. This may seem inaccurate, based on my son’s deficits, but I feel it’s a personal outlook. I speak with a respect and faith in my son’s abilities (not disabilities) and the lifetime of worthwhile and systematically-progressive education across broad areas in life, tailored always to my son’s performance and success by building in strategies that enable him to achieve expectations and to succeed. He is thriving, living a happy and productive life to his potential, and his todays are leading him to a future of independence and inclusion in life in a way that works well for him. His education has made it so.
Marianne Clancy is the parent of a teenager with autism. She is president of the Autism AIMS LLC – www.autism-aims.com – and a board member of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment – www.asatonline.org.