Annotated notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Student with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 5: Chapter 4: Pages 70-91
“Some guy with high-functioning Asperger’s developed the first stone spear, it wasn’t developed by those social ones yakking around the campfire.” Temple Grandin
Autism holds a special place in my heart. Watching the self-named movie of Temple Grandin’s life was what made me 100% sure that I wanted to become a special education teacher. The spectrum is intriguing and the gifts that some possess are so magnificent. I am privileged to work with a few children who are on the spectrum, so I have had the opportunity to learn hands-on. With that being said, know that this post is much different from the others: it is composed of information from Armstrong’s book, Grandin’s speech which I was able to recently attend in my hometown, textbook information from school, and experiences I have learned from and witnessed first- hand.
Autism affects more boys than girls (roughly 1:88 children, 1:54 boys). Ironically, autism is also characterized by traits that are primarily male. Women tend to be empathizers, whereas men tend to be systemizers: “individuals who may not relate well to people, but who love to engage with systems such as machines, computer programs, mathematical equations, drawings, or languages: (Armstrong p73). The thing that makes the autistic systemizing characteristic different from a typical male characteristic is that those affected take systemizing to the extreme: they obsess. I want to point out that although the word obsess/ obsession typically has negative connotations, it shouldn’t when discussing autism. These obsessions are what give us the savants– the ones you see and hear about doing crazy math problems, drawing cities from a short tour, and playing classical pieces after hearing them once.
There are many times when parents of those on the spectrum will try to take the child away from whatever he or she may be fixated on to expose them to something new. Or, teachers may not care or take into consideration what the student with autism is interested in. While exposure to new concepts and objects is great for any child, these guardians and other adults must realize that playing into the child’s obsession can bring great benefits: “The study found that students’ involvement in their special interest areas was correlated with improvements in their social, communication, emotional, sensory, and fine motor skills” (Armstrong p79).
Autism causes people to be more detail oriented rather than seeing the picture as a whole. This aids them in their systemizing.
Essentially, people with ASD are “Where’s Waldo” experts: They’re able to pick out seemingly irrelevant details that others miss. This ability has led to some researchers to suggest that individuals with autism experience what has been termed “weak central coherence”- that is, they fail to grasp the whole situation and perceive mainly the constituent parts. But that is a deficit- oriented way of putting things. A more positive way of saying the same thing is that individuals with autism possess “strong local analysis”- or what some researchers refer to as enhanced perceptual functioning. Armstrong p72
Because those on the spectrum are so detail oriented, many professionals, including Grandin, suggest a highly visual classroom and curriculum rather than teaching everything orally. Small shifts in teaching styles such as the use of visual aids can make a tremendous difference.
Autism affects more than just the way people see details or whether or not they systemize; it also affects their social skills. This is why many with autism relate better to robots, machinery, and animals rather than other people. Thankfully, social media has been an aid in this area because there are less nonverbal cues. However, educators need to keep in mind that communication is difficult for those on the spectrum, and therefore integrating interactions and group work into the classroom can be challenging but also a blessing. If social interaction do not come naturally, group work may be one of the only forms of communication that those with autism receive on a daily basis. Teachers must also remember to model verbal and nonverbal cues and gestures, since these too may not come naturally to those on the spectrum.
While attending the conference in which Grandin spoke, I remember conversing with others who had listened to hear in years prior. They mentioned how much more advanced her speeches and demeanor had become. In the past, Grandin would be speaking and say something that the audience found humorous without even realizing it. The audience would laugh and she would not know why. Now, she tells jokes and funny incidents or life experiences and expects a laugh from the audience.
The thing that sets Temple Grandin apart from others on the spectrum is of course her success; but she would not have been near as successful had it not been for her support system. The adults around Grandin throughout her life saw potential in her. Armstrong quotes on page 81 of his book “‘We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any other normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from the earliest of youth’ (quoted in Frith, 1991, p45).” Your students with autism will be different. They will think differently and process senses differently. They will communicate in their own unique way. They will want schedules, want to be alone, and want to rock, swing, hum, or even flap their arms. But if you work with the student, you can set them up for the same amount of success that Grandin had. And what good teacher wouldn’t want that for their student?
Thanks for reading. Much love