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Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew: Part I

There’s a book given to me when I first started working with teens on the Autism Spectrum: Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm. The old college student in me thought, “Yay…a book…for me to read…since I love reading so much…Not!” Little did I know I was receiving a goldmine of insight that has stuck with me for years!

The book speaks through the children’s voice and provides pivotal insight into educating teens with autism both in and outside the classroom or youth room. These ten insights are GREAT for ALL educators to consider especially when working with teens with autism but also when working with ANY teen!

Learning is Circular

“Learning flows in all directions, not only from you as the teacher to me as the student, but from student to teacher, from student to student, and from teacher to teacher.” (xxii)

This can be a challenge when it comes to our own egos. We need to set pride aside and become child centered when it comes to working with the teens on the spectrum. Don’t focus on whether a teen is saying the EXACT words to the Our Father, or if they are standing during the Proclaim. You might find that the teen can concentrate better when he or she stands up.

In my all-time favorite classic Disney movies, Pocahontas said this amazing line, “But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger. You’ll learn things you never knew you knew.” Well-said Pocahontas. This goes for all your teens coming to Edge or Life Teen. We are all both teachers and students, so don’t’ be afraid to walk in their shoes and learn a lesson.

We Are a Team

“Team: a group of people who share a purpose or task and depend on each other over an extended period of time to succeed.’ I may or may not be very good at sports, but as a child with autism, having people around me who want to play on MY team is the very thing I need to succeed, and nothing less.” (xxiv)

Think about your Core Team. You depend on one another; each member is important as well as their actions and attitudes. There might be a member who expresses she does not like working with a specific teen because he cannot sit still and has horrible behavior. “What is he even getting out of this? I see no hope.” I will admit, I have felt this way and have said it out loud. I am human. But this is not the best team attitude.

Be productive in figuring out as a team what support the teen might need. Are you going to figure that out just talking to the teen? Most likely you won’t! Teens don’t really like to talk about their needs, strengths, and weaknesses. But you know who might know more…their parent(s).

Assembling a team (or you can call it a village) is so important! Include the youth minister, Core Members, parent(s), school teachers, peers, priests, etc. WOW, now we’re cooking! Core Members will change and so will youth ministers, but everything will evolve.

Communication is Key. It is Everything!

“Don’t assume I know everything about your child, be a resource for us!”

You MUST communicate with parents, it is so important! We will go into this deeper in a future blog about parent/youth minister relationships, which is going to be a good one!

I Think Differently

“Because I think differently, my autism requires that you teach differently.” (xxv)

“Autism is a different way of thinking. My brain works differently than yours. Yet your way of thinking is so natural to you that you cannot even imagine that it is foreign to me.” (xxv)

Your teen with autism is like a Mac in a PC-dominated environment. He is hard-wired differently. Not incorrectly just differently! I am a PC lady, a lot of my friend are die hard Mac fans. I once attempted to go onto their Mac to look up a music video. Simple right? NO! It was so hard for me to figure out and I gave up quickly. But on my PC, done in a second, without even having to think. It took 20 years for Mac & PC to adapt and become compatible. Your teen at your church doesn’t have 20 years; it is time to adapt now!

For a teen with autism there is only a one learning channel. The teen will most likely take the best way he learns and use it for everything.

This might be a teen that will converse with you but cannot make eye contact or hold a conversation. You might have a teen that can’t listen or take down notes. When required to process more than one thing at a time, they might falter.  

  • Critical thinking (classification, comparison, application)
  • Executive management (attention, planning and memory functions)
  • Social pragmatics (perspective-taking)

Glitched, Garbled, and Bewildered

“If we can’t communicate effectively, learning can’t happen” (xxvii)

“Suppose you say that I said that she said something quite different; I don’t see that it makes any difference, because if she said what you said I said she said, it’s just the same as if I said what she said she said.”

Say what?! When you read that you probably were thinking she typed that wrong. What if I told you there is a message in that passage and there is no printing error; you’re just not getting it. How does that make you feel? Annoyed, upset, sad, angry, or frustrated? It is your responsibility as a youth minister or Core Member to provide information in a manner that your teen can understand! Do whatever it takes!

Let’s say it’s Life Night, and you go up to a teen that has autism and say, “HEY! Do you want to burn up the dance floor tonight?” Your teen responds, “I am not going to burn anything! And there is no dance floor just carpet?” Not the response you expected, right? First off your teen thinks the dance floor is going to be set on fire, second he is trying to make sense of ALL you said, literally everything. You said the sentence very FAST, vocal pitch was high, you used idioms, sloppy language, tone of voice was excited, and the volume was loud.  Your teen is desperately trying to pay attention but has to comprehend all of what you said and how it was said.

How could you fix that?

  • Move close to the teen and slow down (but not too s—l—o—w, and don’t get too LOUD)
  • Cut out slang: “Drew, your shirt is the bomb diggity, looks like it cost you an arm and a leg.” Whoa, whoa, whoa – did you see how much slang was said there? How about this instead, “Drew I like your shirt, looks expensive!”
  • Give your teen time to digest what you said during instructions. It may take longer to process and formulate words to respond and comprehend the instructions.
    • “Alright everyone time to stand up. Grab a partner who has the same color shirt as you and sit in the center with that partner.”

You just gave a “simple” instruction but there was actually more than just one direction in those two sentences. For other teens it probably took them 20 seconds or less, but you need to give the teen with autism more time to process ALL of the directions that were given.

  • Give your teen time. If your teen needs a 2-minute warning before the next activity DO IT. Their system requires it!  

As you can see this is the end of the blog, no more scrolling down. Hmmm…you only see five things not ten things your student with autism wishes you knew. We will be looking at the final five in Part II and provide you with some more helpful, practical tools. 

About the Author

Sarah LeClair

I live in the Mitten, I work in an amazing district for Special Education, and I absolutely ADORE IT! I have a FUN, wild family, who loves to dance whenever we hear a fun tune. I have two furry roommates for life, Princess Buttercup and Steve. Princess Buttercup's head is permanently crooked and Steve has a mustache. I love getting lost in the woods and going on adventures. I can't control myself when I hear worship music, my hands instantly go up and I do not care because I LOVE our Lord! I LOVE working out and caring for the body God gave me because "I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Psalm 139:14