Quiet, well behaved kids with autism scare me.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not overly crazy about loud, uncooperative or aggressive behaviour either. But, it does get demand attention and resources. On the other hand, the learning needs of a student with autism who sits silently and gazes in the direction of the teacher may fly under the radar. Is the child engaged in what is being taught? Or is he completely absorbed in his own imagination. While the teacher discusses the states of matter, a child may be basking in his passion for weather systems. How do we know what is being learned?
Compliance is not the end goal – learning and growth are.
Kids with autism can have some pretty mixed up concepts. Literal and rigid thinking may thwart student learning. Difficulties with attention, focus and the ability to use context to determine what is relevant information, are hallmark problem areas for our kids on the spectrum. Social isolation, feelings of unworthiness or alienation lurk in quiet desperation.
It is human nature to attend to what grabs our attention. The problem is that educators and parents can assume that a student who is behaving well and working hard is needing less support than is actually the case. As students develop self regulation skills they can sometimes lose the very supports that helped them to achieve a degree of success. Too often, progress is viewed as a signal to cut back human resources and toss visuals supports.
It is true that fading prompts and increasing independence remain critical factors in learning. But, rather than backing off, we need to dig deeper. Spend some one to one time with a student with autism. Ask questions. Check for real understanding. Develop ways for students to show their learning in ways that work for them. Become an astute observer of subtle behaviours, interactions with peers, and comments about self. Examine responses relating to inferences, making connections, predictions and the thoughts and motives of others. These can shed light on the actual learning needs of a student with autism. Be wary of rote answers and excellent memory.
Most of all, never assume that a quiet, well behaved student with autism is learning because he looks like he is listening. Celebrate success by building the foundations for further growth.