I was a substitute teacher for 2 years, longer than most. I remained a substitute teacher for as long as I did for a combination of reasons. Only one is of importance in this context and that was the choice I made (about 6 months into being a sub) to work with students who were labeled as having “varying exceptionalities”. I later learned that this was just an inclusive term for children who have or have not been diagnosed with some varying degree of emotional, physical or mental disabilities.
The day I accepted my first assignment to one of these classrooms, everything changed. Prior to this, I hadn’t had much experience with children with disabilities. However, I found myself unintentionally choosing assignments to the classrooms that “housed” the students with some aspect of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was fascinated by everything about these students and I just wanted to know and learn more.
It’s important to note that I am by no means a professional. Nor do I have any children with autism. However, my experience has given me a unique insight that may be beneficial especially for people who, like me, have/had no experience or knowledge in this arena.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, here are three very important (outsider) lessons I have learned about autism.
- Be Open-Minded – When dealing with people with autism (especially children), open-mindedness is probably one of the most important character traits to have. It’s important to remember that autistic children are atypical. Which means, they will more times than not, do or say (more like sounds if they’re non-verbal) things that may have no bearing in “your reality”. As an outsider, you may consider these things weird. You will wonder why they do the things they do. Stimming (a form of physical self expression) for example is a term I had to learn and get familiar with in order to better understand the students I am interacting with. In addition, many of these students will require a more hands-on approach than what is considered the norm for students without disabilities. Many of them may need help with doing basic activities from throwing a ball to using the potty. You have to be open to any of these possibilities.
- Be Patient – This will probably go hand in hand with number one. Patience is a trait that all teachers should embody naturally. However, with autistic children the level of patience that is often required increases exponentially. Autistic students tend to “live in their own world”. They often have a hard time staying focused and following a lesson all the way through. They get overstimulated really easily. When this happens their behavior can escalate very quickly. As a result, you will find you may need to repeat, modify, redirect, back up the lesson, start over and even abandon the planned lesson in its entirety. No lesson or day is ever the same and it’s important that people understand this. Children with autism require specialized attention. They require teachers and, by extension, caregivers who are patient and understanding.
- Lastly, Have Fun! – Teaching in itself should be made fun. This will make the experience for everyone both students and teachers less stressful. The same can be said and should be no different for students with autism. They require the same level of effort, love, attention and devotion. Be creative. Use innovative techniques to make the lesson more appealing and above all, ensure they can see and feel your genuine enthusiasm. The experience will be 100% more rewarding for everyone involved.
I have learned a great deal from my time with these students. The greatest takeaway was definitely using this experience to help guide the way I interact with and raise even my own children who do not have disabilities. I have greater patience and a deeper understanding an appreciation for different behaviors. I have learned to be less rigid in my approach when it comes to parenting my own children.