Sunday, May 2, 2010

Autistic students: looking beyond accommodations to academic alternatives

As the mother of a mainstreamed middle school child on the autistic spectrum, and as the designer of an online course on high functioning autistic students in mainstreaming environments, I spend much of my waking hours thinking about how best to accommodate students with autism in regular ed classrooms. So when an article featuring an Asperger/autism inclusion middle school teacher by the name of Cherie Fowler appeared in this week's Teacher Magazine, it caught my eye immediately. 

According to the article, Ms. Fowler's goals are to teach her students to express themselves better so they are successful academically in general education classes in middle school and beyond. The article credits Ms. Fowler with five specific strategies:

1. Allowing autistic students to type assignments others would have to write by hand. 
2. Allowing them to use other assistive devices.
3. Shortening some of the assignments. 
4. Allowing them one class period that is designed just for them.
5. Educating each general-education class about what Asperger's/autism is.

Laudable goals, and very much in line with what the eminently practical Asperger's expert Tony Attwood recommends in his Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome.

However, this list left me wishing for more.  As I commented online on Teacher Magazine:
These are good measures, but, I'm hoping, not the only things that Fowler is doing for her autistic spectrum students. When it comes to reading assignments, AS students often read at a lower level when the content is primarily social, emotional, or grounded in popular culture, and at a higher level when the content is more scientific, technical, and linearly organized, and/or removed from everyday culture (as are fantasy fiction and science fiction).

In writing, AS students often languish when asked to write about their personal lives and personal feelings, or to produce realistic fiction. When the topic is science or fantasy, on the other hand, they are often much more inspired and have much more to say.

In math, AS students often do complicated problems in their heads and aren't able to explain their answers verbally. They should be exempted from having to give such explanations, and should receive full credit for correct answers that lack verbal explanations.

When it comes to large, interdisciplinary/multimedia/ open-ended projects, AS students are often so overwhelmed by the breadth of material that they don't even know where to begin. In lieu of such projects, they should be given a larger number shorter, more structured assignments that offer the same degree of academic challenge.

AS students also flounder when required to work in groups. While group activities specifically targeted at improving their social skills, run by an expert in AS, are fruitful, group activities centering on learning tasks should be replaced by independent learning opportunities.

Finally, AS students are often way ahead of their peers in certain subjects and need to be allowed to progress at their own rates.

What AS children, in other words, are not just supports for, and modifications of existing assignments, but a wholesale replacement of many of these assignments by alternative assignments and learning opportunities that are specifically tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.

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