Vocal Students with ASD. Raising focus in the classroom.
At times, someone diagnosed with autism can seem like a blind person in a movie theater.
Please understand, I do not mean this as an insult. It takes a lot of courage for someone that is hard of sight to go to a movie theater and, of course, everyone has the right to be there. This metaphor is simply a focusing tool to the obvious question that arises, why would a person that is deficient in sight go to see a movie? Similarly, why would someone that has deficiencies in social skills be so vocal? Children diagnosed with autism are often highly active in the classroom, asking questions and freely providing remarks throughout the lesson. It is not uncommon for even the more introverted scholars to be heard mumbling to themselves while someone is speaking.
As a teacher, much of your efforts in educating vocal students on the spectrum are probably accompanied by consistent focusing and refocusing (e.g. “listen to the speaker quietly”; “open your book on page 27”; “now is not the time for Superman comics”). Many people with Autism can be a bit rigid in their thinking. So chances are, if you are focusing the student, you might need to do so multiple times throughout the day. This does require someone with a lot of patience.
You may also be well aware of the potentially disruptive nature of a student that consistently speaks out of place. We must never forget that teachers generally have more than one student in a classroom. With that said, truthfully, I am more encouraged by a vocal child than one that does not often talk. Being vocal is an attempt at being social. It hints at a high level of motivation, which is always a good sign. It is much harder to help an unmotivated child. Like I said, it takes a lot of courage for someone that is hard of sight to go to a movie theater. It takes a lot of courage for someone that has difficulties understanding social cues and interactions, to continue to participate in a community.
Imagine the community you live in, the variety of people that you come into contact with. Your interactions vary according to the context you are in and the people you are talking to, or just waving to, or nodding at, or ignoring, etc. Now imagine that other than talking, you hear people hooting. Some hoots are soft and others loud, some are high pitched and some low, some abrupt and others extended, some simple and some complex, some come from the throat and others boom from the belly, some are… well you get the point. The hooting is varied and makes no sense at all. A soft throaty hoot can make some people seem upset and a loud belly hoot, high pitched and then low, can elicit a laugh.
You get to the point where you have to ask yourself, “what the hoot is up with all the hooting?” And now comes a tough question, should you try hooting too? Clearly there is an element of society that you are just not getting but when you do hoot, well. There was that time in the mall where you tried a loud belly hoot, high pitched and then low. No-one laughed. Your mother, red-faced, told you to stop and then you did not get the Superman comic that you were promised. You have to hoot in order to learn how the hooting works but when you hoot, you get in trouble. So ask yourself, would you carry on hooting? If you were hard of sight, would you go to the movies, to experience as much as possible this experience that so many people talk about?
Multiple metaphors aside, my point is that being vocal can be seen as a positive behavior, even if it can be disruptive and seemingly unfocused. As a teacher there are many ways for you to leverage that motivated behavior towards positive outcomes. I will provide here two examples of how to achieve this goal. These can be utilized with all children but I find them to be especially effective for many students diagnosed with autism.
Notice existing learning strategies.
All children are to some extent or another, problem solvers. The home and the classroom habituate them to a multitude of learning strategies. The more creative students also conceive personalized strategies as they go. Students that have difficulties acquiring learning strategies from others are often prone to inventive approaches to problems. This fact is abundantly clear to any psychologist that has diagnosed a learning disability in a student that has had to struggle without a clear diagnosis for years. These students always seem to develop personal strategies to overcome their disability. For example, an innovative 12-year-old boy whom I diagnosed as having a type of dyslexia, had learned to cover all the lines in a text, with two pieces of paper, thus only focusing on the line that he was reading.
Unfortunately, not all self-conceived strategies come across as functional. Do you have a student that hides his/her geography book before learning grammar? Is there a child in your class that refuses to let you see his/her work until he/she has finished, even if assistance is clearly required? Have you ever encountered a child that will only work with specific tools (e.g. a favorite pencil)?
When trying to instill in someone a new learning strategy, it is best to notice existing strategies as they may have been put in place with a similar function to the one you are trying to teach. There may be elements to the previous strategy that are dysfunctional but still their usually is a purpose to a behavior. And building on something that exists is more individualized and more meaningful.
Children may realize if they have difficulties focusing. A geography book may be distracting for someone that has to learn “boring” grammar. If this really is a focusing strategy, then maybe you could suggest a better one?
If a child refuses to let you see his/her work, before finishing, he/she may have difficulties fixing errors in his/her work. In this case, maybe you could adapt the way you provide feedback? Is there any way that corrections could wait until he/she finishes a section? Maybe a compromise could be achieved?
Finally, many children are sensory in nature. Learning is hard and sensory stimulation can be quite calming. Rigidly fixating on a specific pencil is not functional but have other accessible opportunities for sensory calming been provided?
Document context inappropriate questions.
Children on the spectrum may often ask questions that seem unrelated to the task at hand. For example, I once assisted with a young girl, Anastasia, who was refusing to get on the bus to and from school. Anastasia’ parents had been driving her to school until the third grade and now wanted her to become more independent. The safety and stability of the busing experience was explored with her but she persisted on asking questions that were unrelated. Her teacher and I wrote down these questions and we noticed that most of her queries were food related. What did the driver like to eat? Would children eat food on the bus? What kind? She was fixated on the idea that she needed this information in order to get on the bus. Anastasia’s teacher had a conversation with her regarding her thoughts on food and the bus. It became clear that she was concerned that if the bus was delayed, she would not eat. Whereas a student who was less prone to rigid thought may have realized that in such a situation a solution would be found, Anastasia could not imagine a positive outcome to this scenario. A snack box was provided to the driver, for “emergencies”, and Anastasia agreed to get on the bus.
Context inappropriate questions can lend insight into such scenarios where children have difficulties imagining solutions to potential problems. This is especially useful in an academic setting where so much understanding requires creative inferences. In other words, the common context of what the child is persistently inquiring about may help you understand what he/she is getting stuck on. Resolve this problem and you can move on.
If you are a teacher encountering behavior problems in school then do take a look at my recent first book, available at all major outlets.
(Just click on the image.)