While the NCAA’s March Madness may just be reaching it’s grand finale round of games, I am declaring that the “Madness” that had inhabited Room 306 during the past month is over. We survived.
I am not exaggerating when I say we really had reached a state of madness by the time our blessed Spring Break rolled around. During the month of March, my boys, and myself, had become increasingly restless. With the arrival of the spring-like weather, however infrequent it was, we had all reached our breaking point of cabin fever. While my patience had officially depleted, my boys’ tolerance for me and one another had also been exhausted. We had seen too much of each other, been together too many hours a day, and our classroom family just needed a vacation from one another. While the boys may have been tired of me pushing them, they have no idea just how tired I was of pushing.
Needless to say, Spring Break was welcomed with open arms, and a visit from one of my best friends made it all worth it. With the chance to relax, celebrate, and enjoy Philly, I forgot all about anything and everything school related. And finishing my break off with the celebration of Good Friday and Easter could not have been a more perfect way to refresh and rejuvenate my heart. If there is one thing I can always count on to refill my soul, it is the reminder that my battles have already been won, by a Savior who died just because He loves me. Celebrating Christ’s sacrifice and victory on the cross is the only reminder I needed to call me back to my purpose.
Thus, the new month begins, and just as I declared the madness to be over, I am declaring April to be awesome. The boys seem well rested too, making for much more pleasant days, more willing students, and a general calmness that seems to have settled over the room. With the weather warming up, I am predicting that my boys will keep coming to school well-rested and calm, as they will have more time to go outside, run like crazy, and burn off that extra energy.
Yes, this month will be Awesome. April brings baseball, birthdays (my own included) and a general reawakening of the city. Not only is this month special to me, but April is also Autism Awareness Month. As a teacher of students with Autism, April is the perfect time to do my part to raise awareness, and pass on some knowledge of the Autism spectrum.
While I am no expert on Autism, I do have some experiences and knowledge to share. Due to the vastness of the Autism spectrum, and the uniqueness of its presentation in each child, I am not sure there will ever be a so-called “expert” anyways, no matter how much research we may do. With that, let me share what I do know, and the understandings I have developed through my graduate courses and experiences in the classrooms with these remarkable children.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it can range from mild to severe. Children who have mild Autism are usually considered “high-functioning.” This means they communicate on a fairly normal level, may have some cognitive delays or need to be taught in a particular or nonstandard method, and they generally have some difficulties with social interactions. Children on the opposite end of the spectrum, those considered “severe” are oftentimes non-verbal, with incredible learning difficulties and strained interactions, if any. Nearly all children with Autism present some sort of hypersensitivity to light, sound, touch, or smells. Our normal environment is simply over-stimulating in many ways. Now, imagine the range and variations in the presentation of Autism between those ends, and add to it the complexity of each child, their family, and the environment and culture surrounding them. This is why we have Autism Awareness month. There is so much we do not know, but are seeking to understand about Autism and its spectrum. It is intensely mysterious, and often incredibly pervasive, as it effects not only the child, but their family in ways that could turn a household upside-down.
That is my version of the textbook explanations, so now let’s get to the more interesting and emotional side of my understandings.
Here is what I have learned from my students with Autism:
What often appears “odd” to others, may just be that child’s way of making themselves calm and happy, and returning to homeostasis when feeling overstimulated, or even threatened by our surroundings. For example, one of my boys enjoys arranging objects into perfectly straight lines. If I gave him all the blocks, cubes, and counting objects in our room, he would be content and satisfied arranging them all day long in nice neat lines. When he is laying on the carpet lining up the blocks, it is as if he has entered a calm and quiet world all to himself. He is happy there. Sometimes, after a rough morning or a grumpy class period, I let him stay there in his bliss for a little longer than others.
Children with Autism often think or process information in unconventional ways, and sometimes the way they think outside the box blows me away. What some see as incorrect, I see as a different, and sometimes intuitive, way of thinking and viewing the world. I can best describe this remarkable skill through an example from one of my boys. While taking an assessment with the school psychologist, he was presented a picture of a rectangle, a triangle, and a circle. The psychologist’s question that followed was, “How do these objects go together?” My student looks at the shapes and responds, “Well, the rectangle is like the middle part of a car where the seats are. Then the triangle can be like the hood, and the circle is the wheels.” According to the assessment, the psychologist, and our conventional way of thinking, the “correct” answer for how all the objects belong together was because, “They are all shapes.” Yet, the brilliant and creative answer my student gave is considered “incorrect.” His way of looking at the shapes, creating something out of them, and his interpretation of the question, in my opinion, was amazing, and a skill that should be encouraged and developed.
Another common feature of my students with Autism is a difficulty with social interaction and communication. This difficulty can include not making eye contact when speaking to others, which can cause problems when perceived by adults and teachers as disrespect. Or, in some cases, my boys may retreat and simply stop talking altogether. They also have trouble reading social cues from others, like facial expressions, sarcasm, idioms, and body language. Often, I hear one of my students making attempts to interact and copy the behaviors of his peers, but he is rather unsuccessful, and he is usually okay with that, because he does not recognize that his interactions are not producing the results and interactions they should.
And finally, the most important things I have learned about supporting students with Autism:
I have learned that routine, predictability, structure, and consistency helps my students thrive. They were not willing participants in our classroom until they saw that I could be trusted and my reactions could be predicted. All of my boys, but especially those with Autism, needed to see that I was there for them, I was always on their side, and our classroom was a safe place for them to be themselves. When our systematic daily routines had been established, and they knew what to expect from me, and what their day would typically include, they were able to open up, be pushed academically, and establish their place within our classroom family. The only other key ingredients they needed were love and encouragement, as constant as the sun rise. My boys require constant positivity, big, excited reactions to each small step of progress, and love that cannot be contained.
So this April, I encourage you to dig deeper into understanding Autism, support the furthering of our research, and help provide children and their families with the acceptance, love, and support they need to achieve happiness.
Here is a really great resource to check out:
The return of Baseball and Autism Awareness:
MLB Supports Autism Awareness at April Home Games
Attend your team’s Autism Awareness game!
Find an Autism Speaks Walk near you:
Autism Speaks Walks