Autism Spectrum Disorder is on the rise. Autism Spectrum Disorder is on the rise? While pondering over information found on the National Institute of Mental Health website (www.nimh.nih.gov), one cannot help but fluctuate between statement and question. The latest edition of the diagnostic manual (DSM-5) now includes Asperger’s Syndrome under the ASD umbrella, broadening the category ever further. In addition, greater awareness is, thankfully, bringing with it earlier diagnosis. We all look at genetics, vaccines, environmental factors – none of which has lead us to a cause for the disorder which is now estimated to touch approximately 1out of every 88 of the children we love (National Autism Association, 2014).
Perhaps it is human nature to search for a cause so that we may point to and blame something in particular. However, through years of teaching and caring the truth seems to be that some things really don’t matter…and a few things matter very much.
The label or classification matters little unless you are looking for government funding. Autistic, Communication Impaired, Multiple Disabilities, Emotionally Disturbed, Cognitively Impaired, Other Health Impaired, or Specific Learning Disability – finding how to teach the child is what comes first. The challenge comes from the balance that must be struck. The teacher must be demanding yet patient; energetic but calm; firm, sure and always flexible. The difference is striking. And, paramount to all else, there must be respect for the child as an individual. It has been said that from the seeds of trust integrity blooms. The teacher must see the strengths students possess and facilitate their growth, acknowledging the partnership between student and teacher which can only exist within an environment of trust.
Keeping the balancing act is not easy, yet it is necessary to foster the independence and generalization of learned behaviors and academic skills. The basis of humanistic design is the individual. Therefore, looking at each child with their individual characteristics, needs, tendencies, expectations, strengths and successes is central. Since every child with ASD is different, no single education plan should be mass produced. We see this when we look at a deficit model; we should also be open to this when looking at attributes. Teachers have heard the phrases and have used the classroom design of both student and teacher centered instruction. Special Education screams out to be focused on the learner. This really should be more than a matter of semantics. The focus must be on what the child is doing in the classroom rather than focusing on what the instructor is doing or covering in the paradigm.
Teaching styles and teaching strategies obviously affect student learning. Please consider the shift which may occur when instruction changes from being teacher-centered and content-driven to becoming learner-centered and learning process-driven. The teacher remains as a skilled facilitator throughout the process. The learner’s role changes from that of being a passive recipient or empty receptacle into which the instructor deposits information into that of an active learner engaged in the procedure.
Shifting the focus places the teacher along side the students during the learning development. Children construct knowledge through repetitive gathering and integrating of information. General skills of inquiry, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving are addressed and advanced. We all know how important it is to read and write and understand the use of mathematics (and a calculator). Those soft skills, however, are as, if not more, important as the 3 Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). Rather than answers being “right” or “wrong,” learners are exposed to the idea that they can learn from their errors and, thus are able to generate better questions. In addition, generally, student-centered instruction is considered interdisciplinary in nature of collaboration, cooperation and mutual support.
Formative assessment is one effective way a teacher can be clear about the intended learning goals for a lesson (www.education.com/reference/article/formative-and-summative-assessment/). This means focusing on what students will learn as opposed to what they will produce, which is often where teachers are tempted to start. To achieve maximum transparency and buy-in for learners, we share the learning goal, or actively create it with the child, at the beginning of the lesson. This especially holds true when dealing with teaching appropriate behavioral skills or social interactions. In addition, the indicators of progress toward the learning goal are determined in collaboration with the child. These indicators serve as signposts for both teachers and learners regarding progress and provide stress reduction.
Within this trusting environment, clarity about goals and indicators are certain and teachers gather evidence of emergent learning. There is no single way to collect formative evidence because formative assessment is not a specific kind of test. For example, teachers can gather evidence through observations of an activity or through interactions with the learners. However, there are two important points about evidence. First, whatever method a teacher uses would yield information that is actionable by their students. Second, evidence collection is a systematic process and should be a constant stream tied to a progress indicator. Of course, it must be said that when those unplanned, spontaneous moments occur that give an indication of where the learner is in relation to the lesson goal – it is evidence of growth!
Building on this model, depending on the child’s developmental level, more or less directives by the teacher may be required. The goal, however, is always to strive for independence and learner generalization. As a means towards this end, positive models and ample time for growth and achievement to occur must be provided, along with a positive allegiance between school and home.
Would you drive in a car only using the rear-view mirror?
We need to look ahead, to be alert, prepared, and ready to act. A strong home-school allegiance connects the child’s behavioral and academic school work with their interests in and concerns for the home and community. Working with the family develops an understanding of the world they live in. The real-world allows for learning what is most important or what really makes the most sense based on practical real-life needs and the implementation of common core standards across different environments. We look to experience a steady and purposeful progression from one level to the next in all areas: Academics; Behavioral Growth; Life Skills; Recreational Skills; Communication and Social Interactions.
Educators frequently are looking for “the” new strategy, a shiny “new” material, or “solutions in a box” to improve learning for the students with ASD for whom we care so much. I’m just not sure there is anything to purchase. Shifting the focus to looking for strengths, concentrating on soft-skills such as positive attitude, curiosity, following the rules, honesty, and self-direction to name a few and aligning with families may be the key.
Once the changes are implemented the cycle begins. This is what professional development is all about. To learn to teach the skills that will lead to greater independence and a higher quality of life for each of our students by enabling them to be successful. It is a cycle of action and reflection.
Vicki Ofmani, MEd, LDT-C, is Supervisor/SLE Coordinator at The Forum School, located in Waldwick, NJ. She is also a Member of the Board of Trustees for The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation in Ridgewood, NJ. For more information, please visit www.theforumschool.com or email Vicki at firstname.lastname@example.org.