April 1st of this year marked the 50th anniversary of National Autism Awareness Month — a nationwide movement launched by the Autism Society (@AutismSociety) to “promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all, and to assure that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 100 Americans each year but the developmental disorder affects children even more. According to recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children will be diagnosed with ASD at some point before they are 18. That means that, most likely, every teacher in America will, at some point, teach a child with autism.
This disorder is such an important and influential part of our society and national dialogue that it is inspiring organizations, educators, and lawmakers to help bring awareness to Autism Research and and an understanding of how we can help encourage and celebrate the contributions of people with autism (particularly students).
On this 50th Anniversary of National Autism Awareness Month, the Autism Society is looking to move beyond autism awareness, to encouraging a movement of acceptance, appreciation, and to “embracing a new perspective” by highlighting a series of activities and events throughout the month and an #AutismUniquelyYou Twitter campaign designed to “Celebrate the Uniqueness in Us All.”
Last week, President Obama threw the government’s support behind the initiative by signing a proclamation recognizing April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day (#WorldAutismAwarenessDay) and signing a bill that will dedicate $1.3 billion in federal funding to further ASD and related brain research. The President explains the importance of these actions:
“My Administration is committed to helping Americans with autism fulfill their potential by ensuring access to the resources and programs they need… Last year, I was proud to sign the Autism CARES Act of 2014, which bolstered training and educational opportunities for professionals serving children or adults on the autism spectrum…Today, let us honor advocates, professionals, family members, and all who work to build brighter tomorrows alongside those with autism.” — President Barack Obama, (Presidential Proclamation: World Autism Awareness Day, 2015)
This announcement, undoubtedly, will be welcomed by parents, advocates and people who work with people with autism. Not to be forgotten, educators, especially, need support and tools in the classroom when working with children with ASD. Without such support, the classroom can be challenging for both the teacher and the student with autism. Autistic students use unique methods to communicate in a world that doesn’t always make sense to them.
“Each child [with ASD] is unique and often very bright, even if considered nonverbal, but they wind up engaging in challenging behavior out of sheer frustration due to having a lot to say — but no voice.” — Kim Ceccarelli (Huffington Post)
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Despite inherent challenges in teaching students on the autism spectrum, we now understand that these students are uniquely gifted and, not only have a lot to say, but are particularly drawn to expressing their interests and ideas through STEM subjects.
In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (STEM Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder), researchers found that certain areas of the Autistic brain are programmed to respond better to STEM education than unaffected children and that findings suggest that students with an ASD had the highest STEM participation rates. Additionally, a University of Cambridge research study of 11,000 young adults found that those with Autism Spectrum Disorder were more likely to choose STEM majors than both unaffected students and those with alternative brain disorders (Mathematical Talent is Linked to Autism).
Xin Wei, a senior research analyst for SRI International’s Center for Education and Human Services and the lead author on the Journal of Autism study emphasizes that people with autism have “strengths in systemizing, memorizing, and rule-based systems, but they are not so great at social and emotional interaction with other people.” This could be one of the reasons why the same research also shows that, while students with ASD may excel and gravitate towards STEM, their college enrollment rate was the third lowest among 11 disability categories and students in the general population.
So, while the strengths of those with autism tie in well to STEM-related skills, their difficulties with social interactions make it hard to navigate a traditional college environment. How can educators help students with ASD, who are particularly inclined to gravitate towards (and excel in) STEM subjects, cope with classroom social interactions and structured learning?
“High schools and [early educators] could include them more in general education, give them more opportunities and encourage their self-determination skills to be independent, be the leader and be the champion of themselves,” suggests Wei. “Those things can make a difference.”
Fortunately, thanks to current research, education blogs and digital PLNs offer STEM teachers a wealth of resources to help educate themselves on how to teach and engage with this uniquely STEM-oriented group of students.
The National Science Teachers Association (@NSTA), as a prime example, has an excellent autism resource page on its website (Science for Students with Disabilities: Autism) that is wealth of current information and tools to help STEM teachers engage autistic students in STEM. With relevant links to Autism research, alternative teaching methods, and research-based activities to better engage these unique learners, the NSTA’s Autism page has inspired us to create a detailed list of helpful, research-based techniques for teaching autistic students.
Our next generation of 21st century problem-solvers and innovators will be more diverse than ever before. Helping students with autism reach their full potential in the classroom and in STEM careers is as crucial to our innovation and success. So, let’s celebrate these talented kids and raise our hands to being #AutismUniquelyYou!
10 Classroom-Tested Tools & Techniques for Teaching on the Autism Spectrum
Researchers from the Center for Education in STEM at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington used robotics to measure engagement and language skills from students on the Autism Spectrum. What they found was that autistic students responded very well to the social simplicity of dealing with robots rather than people – who can be emotional and difficult to understand. A great example of a school using robots to teach children with ASD is Topcliff School in Castle Vale, UK (read about their inspiring results at the Daily Mail HERE). (Courtni Kopietz, “Unlocking Potential: The Bridge Between Autism and STEM,” STEMWire)
2. Picture Exchange Communication System
This is a great system for working with non-verbal students, and it’s promoted by the NSTA for specifically helping to teach science subjects to those with Autism. In the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), students draw or choose an image in order to get information or action from a teacher or another student. Then, students can learn how to make rudimentary sentences with images. It’s also a great tool to use with students who sometimes have trouble expressing thoughts, needs, or wants. (“Science for Students with Disabilities: Autism,” National Science Teachers Association)
3. Focus on Student Strengths
Autism expert Temple Grandin suggests that teachers should focus on identifying and guiding students to use their autistic strengths to their advantage. As an Autistic learner herself, Grandin found the abstraction of algebra was virtually impossible to understand in her mainly visual brain. It was only overcome after doing hands-on experiments (making model suspension bridges) in order to understand things like trigonometric functions. (Temple Grandin, “How Does Visual Thinking Work in the Mind of a Person with Autism? A Personal Account,” Colorado State University)
4. Directly Instruct Social and Functional Skills
Often, autistic students don’t have the innate understanding of social clues and functional strategies that will allow them to focus on learning. The NSTA suggests that teachers directly instruct social information such as when the student might be making others uncomfortable, or how to respond to changes in the schedule appropriately. A good example is Kim Ceccarilli, who taught a replacement behavior of bending pipe cleaners when an autistic student began to be frustrated, mitigating the physically violent tantrums that the student usually exhibited. (Nancy Rappaport, “An Insider’s Look Into Autism: Alongside Her Autistic Students, Behavioral Coordinator Kim Ceccarelli Is Also Learning,” Huffington Post Education Blog)
5. Video Self-Modeling on iPad
In this study, researchers found that ASD students who were taught functional math through video self-modeling had a significantly higher number of correct responses after 12 weeks. Correct responses increased by between 74%-98.5%, with the most significant shift being within the first few weeks of the activity. Although the sample size was small (seven students), this study has been the basis of the NSTA’s support of using technology and video for autistic student learning. (C.E. Burton et. al, “Video Self-Modeling on an iPad to Teach Functional Math Skills to Adolescents with Autism and Intellectual Disability,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities)
6. Limit Choice and Distraction
In order to avoid over-stimulation for those on the Autism Spectrum, the NSTA suggests that choices and learning areas should be simple and straightforward. Students on the autism spectrum should be given no more than three choices at a time in order to feel comfortable making decisions. In addition, work spaces should be quiet and/or clearly defined with physical boundaries (such as a cubicle or tape boundaries). (“Science for Students with Disabilities: Autism,” National Science Teachers Association)
7. Sensory Activities
Children on the Autism Spectrum respond well to sensory activities, especially ones that are focused on a single experience. The NSTA suggests that some children “may find deep pressure techniques relaxing,” and can be helpful in lowering anxiety. There are many wonderful sensory activities available online specifically for autistic students, such as this Pinterest board by Amy Smith. (Sandra B. Dunbar et al. “A Pilot Study Comparison of Sensory Integration Treatment and Integrated Preschool Activities for Children with Autism,” The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice)
This group, led by the University of Washington’s DO-IT Center, offers resources for teachers to get their autistic students more involved in STEM learning and careers. Not only does this site provide activities, research, and assessments for teachers of autistic students, it has job opportunities and organizations for students on the Autism Spectrum. (Courtni Kopietz, “Unlocking Potential: The Bridge Between Autism and STEM,” STEMWire)
9. Schedules and Consistency
Many students on the Autism Spectrum get confused by changes to their regular schedule. This can make transitions difficult and potentially dangerous for students and teachers. The NSTA suggests supporting consistency in your classroom through the use of rule and procedural posters, direct instruction, and visual directions on how to do new tasks. (“Science for Students with Disabilities: Autism,” National Science Teachers Association)
10. Give Extra Time
Information is processed differently and often at a different pace in the autistic brain. That’s why it is vital to allow autistic students extra time to understand the science curriculum you are teaching. This can extend to following verbal commands or conversations, which can make group work difficult for autistic students. Direct instruction to the classroom about wait times for responses is a good first step to allowing autistic students enough time to think clearly. (Barbara T. Doyle, “Six Basic Instruction Strategies for Working with Children and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders or Related Conditions,” Johns Hopkins School of Education)
For more ideas on activities, teaching tools, and research about ASD learners, visit the NSTA’s “Science for Students with Disabilities: Autism,” resource page. You can also go to the National Autism Society’s “National Autism Awareness Month” page for specific activities and events for each day in April – both nationally and in your local area.
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