The height of a child’s temper tantrum is a wondrous experience. Thrown body on the floor, kicking and pounding with hands and feet, and screaming and crying in complete frustration, anger, and despair. No amount of cajoling, bargaining, or pleading for the child to calm down will help it stop… it just makes it ten times worse. So we walk away, pretend to leave, and the child stops, opens up one eye to see how much of an engaged audience they still have, and then realizes it’s time to move on. Usually this is my classroom almost every day this year. It has been for several years, since teaching elementary school in Arizona. Am I saying that Arizona kids have discipline issues? No, but I have been the truly lucky teacher who works with autistic children in my general education classroom in a public school. (Note: Not all autistic children have temper tantrums. This is an observed behavior expressed by a couple of autistic students in my classroom this year.)
Last year I was asked to write an article about classroom management for a nationwide educational magazine, and as I was planning out three student behavior scenarios, I included how to survive the meltdown of an autistic student. After sharing my plans for the article, the editor replied almost immediately, “Cut the autistic part of the story. Not many teachers will find it relevant to add to their classroom management skills. Autism isn’t that prevalent in public education.” I had to stop and think. Not that prevalent? Since teaching in Arizona for the past eleven years, I have had at least 2-3 autistic children in my classroom every year! How is it not prevalent?
According to the “Autism Speaks” website (www.autismspeaks.org), “autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.” Another parent study has published in the fall of 2015 that 1 in 40 children are now diagnosed with autism in the United States. Not that prevalent?
Let me tell you the story about Sam. He is the reason why I am sharing my passion about autism awareness in Arizona classrooms. Sam was diagnosed with autism at the age of three when his mother observed him flapping his arms repeatedly, not speaking, and organizing his toys in specific patterns. He learned how to talk through a preschool program that specialized in speech disorders, and has been in the special education program in public school since Kindergarten. Last year, when Sam was in 1st grade, he had a teacher who has not worked with many autistic children, and his behavior escalated into extreme meltdowns in the classroom. He was subsequently transferred to a self-contained classroom for students with behavior disorders, spending a lot of his time playing on the computer, playing with blocks, and learning basic reading and writing skills. Currently Sam is included in a general education classroom for one hour in the afternoon. His 2nd grade teacher soon observed that he could utilize high-level metacognitive skills during read-alouds, and that he could transfer data from the white board onto paper quite easily. She asked if Sam could start coming into her classroom in the morning for one additional hour, and start teaching him how to write. Within three months, Sam was starting to behave like an 8-year-old, write sentences, read sight words, use phonics skills, and make friends. What happened? There are a lot of factors to remember about teaching autistic children.
First, it is scientifically proven that most children with autism have an average intelligence. Their sensitive behavior needs and emotional immaturity create a wall for most people to understand that deep down, they are smart and more than capable to learn. They need advocates at school to prevent them to be completely hidden away in a self-contained behavior disorder classroom that doesn’t support their educational needs.
Second, general education teachers need training to work with autistic students. It should be mandatory!!! 1 in 40 children means that most likely a teacher will have at least one autistic child in their classroom every school year. Sam would not have lost 2 years of learning in a general education classroom if his teachers could have support. It’s all about equity and accommodations when it comes to autism! Yes, I have one of my autistic students bounce wildly on a yoga ball through the hallway, but if that helps him come back to the classroom, ready to learn and collaborate with peers, then it’s perfect fit for both of us.
Third, the label of “autism” cannot be the only element of an autistic child’s identity! They need a growth mindset as well as anyone else!! An autistic child needs to hear, “You are more than capable. I believe in you. Try it!” Yes, failure may escalate their behavior into a meltdown, but we still need to encourage autistic children to try!
I want to remember my autistic students as the true heroes in education. They process so much in their minds as they are also trying to adapt to an inconsistent world of the extremes. We need to become advocates for them in the classroom!