For some students who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or Asperger’s syndrome, the start of a new school year can be especially difficult. Adjusting to new teachers, schedules, classmates and rules can be hard for all children, but for children with ASD or Asperger’s syndrome, changes in routine can be overwhelming and trigger socially-unacceptable behaviors. Stephen Shore, Ed.D., a professor of special education at Adelphi University in New York, believes that by utilizing the strengths of students with special needs, challenges can be accommodated.
One of the featured speakers at the US Autism & Asperger Association 10th Annual World Conference, held in Tucson at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort July 30-Aug.1, Shore has a personal connection to ASD. He was diagnosed with atypical development and strong autistic tendencies and was non-verbal as a young child. Doctors recommended that he be institutionalized. His parents disagreed and worked to provide him opportunities to learn and grow. Becoming verbal at age four, Shore eventually became a bar mitzvah, graduated from high school and went on to receive his doctorate in education.
When trying to teach children in an inclusive environment, Shore says that the first step is forming a bond with the student. “Before any work can be done with a student, you have to build a trusting relationship,” he explains. Once a relationship is established, the teacher, student and parents can begin to look for the best ways to teach the child. “Instead of looking at a student from the perspective of a list of deficits, we should look at what an autistic person can do, and look at the strengths and abilities they possess.”
Understanding the abilities of the student allows the teacher to adapt and revise curriculum. If a student has trouble mastering a large amount of information for a test, for example, Shore suggests that the best practice is not to lower the expectations for the student, but to test the student in smaller chunks. “If the student can’t memorize 10 spelling words for a test on Friday, test him on five words on Tuesday and five words on Friday,” he says, adding that expecting less of a student will not effectively prepare them for adulthood. Similarly, if a student has trouble finishing tasks within a specified amount of time, the teacher should help them learn to manage their time instead of just giving them more time.
Allowing students diagnosed with ASD or Asperger’s syndrome to learn in an inclusive environment can benefit the entire classroom, but does not look the same for each student, says Shore.
“Inclusion is a spectrum,” he says. “It should be the least restrictive environment in which the student can be successful. In order to be fair to all students, we have to treat them differently and give them all the tools they need to be successful. It’s really just an extension of good teaching practice.”
Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.