3 weeks ago



Frankie 163 ents had to

Frankie 163 ents had to teach him how to brush his teeth by taking pictures of each step involved in the process: picking up the toothbrush, putting toothpaste on the brush, brushing his teeth, and spitting into the sink. Once each step was taught individually, he had to learn to do them in sequence. But at the end of it all, he was better and more consistent at brushing his teeth than his brothers and sisters! The other problem is that catching Frankie’s interest in academic activities is even more difficult than for typical children. What motivates and interests Frankie are the capitals of Europe, flags of the world, stamps (but only those with flags on them), and old maps; he is simply not interested in the typical things that an eight-year-old is interested in, such as sports, the latest Japanese animation, robots, and transformers. So when other children come over to his house to play, Frankie wants to show them his collection of flags, which is interesting to them for about fifteen minutes. The other children then want to play with Frankie’s neglected toys—the cars and the electric train set. Frankie stays in his room, poring over his books and ignoring his friends. His parents sigh in frustration and wonder what to do. Soon the friends stop coming over. But sometimes children with ASD are in schools that are able to capitalize on their extraordinary capacity for visual learning. When this happens, gifted and creative teachers can make learning and participation in school both therapeutic and an opportunity for growth. The teacher is able to see the autistic disability as a gift, as a talent to be exploited, not as a symptom to be eliminated. This insight comes from a profound respect for the mind of the child with ASD and an intuitive capacity for understanding and imagining the mind of other people. Not all unusual interests can be transformed in such a way, but when it does happen, the potential for learning is remarkable. It is also true that these schools and teachers are hard to find, but they do exist. The best way to find schools that are flexible in their approach to a child with ASD is to see if the school has had previous experience with ASD, if it has used the consultants and experts it has available to it, and if the school has enjoyed working with children with ASD. Schools that see these children as a burden, as extra work, are to be avoided if possible. Many boards have special teams that will consult with specific schools about a child with ASD in that classroom and help design an educational program that takes that child’s learning style into account. A principal and teacher that listen to these local experts and implement the recommendations in the classroom are the best schools for children with ASD. Just

164 A MIND APART because a child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) does not mean that the school has the expertise or willingness to take these learning styles into account. A child can have the best individualized program in his educational folder, but if the plan is not implemented with the assistance of experts it is unlikely that the plan will be used effectively. Willingness to learn and to accept new challenges are the most important predictors of success. These schools see parents as an important part of the education team, not as potential critics to be held at a distance. They use reports sent home to tell good stories about the child’s day at school, not all the bad things that happened. I remember one school where the teacher wrote things like “Teresa should learn not to pass gas in class.” This is an example of a school unwilling to work with parents in a constructive fashion. If parents have a choice about what school their child may attend, it is worthwhile to compare and contrast several schools and choose the one with the most experience with children with ASD or the one most willing to be flexible and accommodating and one that treats parents as part of the team. * * * We had a school conference for Frankie that turned out quite well, in fact. The principal and teacher were genuinely interested in learning how to help Frankie and were willing to listen to their special education consultants—a psychologist, a special education teacher, and a speech pathologist—all of whom had experience with children with ASD and were aware of the latest research on learning styles in this population. The special education teacher, who attended Frankie’s conference, had many helpful things to say. She understood that the key was not to make Frankie follow the standard curriculum, not to focus on what he could not do, but rather to capitalize on his particular strengths and talents—his memory for details, his ability to see patterns and to decode complex visual figures (like letters and numbers) into simpler parts. Focusing on the ways in which these children can learn is much more effective than focusing on what they cannot do. The consultant suggested that Frankie’s teacher use his interest in flags as a vehicle for learning about math; if you have two flags and you multiply by another five, how many flags will you have? Frankie could picture this scenario in his mind without difficulty, and it turned out to be much easier to teach Frankie math this way, rather than using the traditional examples in the books. She also suggested that Frankie

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