Autism Experts on Education

Carolyn Ogburn, Therapist at the Asheville TEACCH Center talked with autistic adults about their educational experiences.

school.jpgAt a gathering of autistic adults recently, I raised the topic of educational experience. Several in attendance regularly speak on panels that we do at TEACCH trainings, and have shared their thoughts and ideas about the educational strategies that were helpful for them as they went through school, as well as those which were not helpful. ("Not helpful," I feel I should add, are my words, not theirs.) I shared with them that Ron Larsen, a former therapist at the Asheville TEACCH Center and the owner of Centering on Children, was interested in writing an article for his newsletter, which would be distributed among parents and teachers of children on the autism spectrum. Raising the topic, I was aware that I was introducing a second purpose for our gathering.

Our gathering is intended to be purely social, an opportunity for adults diagnosed with characteristics of the autism spectrum to meet each other in a safe and consistent setting. So the way in which I broached the topic was to ask, "If you would be willing to share your experience about education, would you prefer to schedule an appointment to talk about it, to discuss it here (at the group), using email or through a printed questionnaire?"

Overwhelmingly, people told me that they would like to read a questionnaire. Some chose to answer the written questions out loud, while others wrote their answers; one read the questions and told me his answers while I typed them on the computer. This allowed him to see what he'd said, and kept him focused. Having this exchange in writing, a visual and concrete way of communicating, was important to most people in this group. In one man's words, having the questions written down "lets me know what it is you want me to answer."

The limitations to using a questionnaire were that occasionally I would have preferred to ask for more information. Other times, my use of open-ended questions, intended to allow for a more detailed personal answer, were thwarted by the person's more literal communication. For example, in response to my question, "Are there environments in which you learn better than others?" one young man replied enthusiastically, "Absolutely!" However, the avidity with which the group members read and responded to these questions told me in greater detail than their words did the importance that concise, concrete presentation of information makes to their quality of response.

Most of the members of this group grew up during a time in which HFA/Aspergers was not defined in the DSM, receiving a diagnosis as adults. Some were diagnosed with Learning Disabilities or ADD/ADHD. Others were honor roll students. Many attended or graduated college, while others left formal education at 16. Several are currently enrolled in college. One has had licenses in plumbing, electrical, masonry and HVAC; one is a priest; others are musicians, artists, craftspeople or computer technicians. Most, however, are unemployed. They range in age from 19 to 75; the median age is approximately 37.

Here are their responses to specific questions: When asked, "In what ways do you prefer to learn new information?" one man, wrote: "Reading, and then doing." Another, who works as a bagger in a grocery chain, wrote, "I prefer to learn in a hands-on environment." A college student answered that he learns best "Visually, like when someone draws pictures to tell me the way things are done." Most responded that they "could learn in other ways" if they were interested in the subject, though many nodded in agreement when a college student shared that she doesn't know why "people expect me to understand what they're talking about when they do things like this – 'Put this over there (she pointed) – what are they talking about? All I can see is their finger!"

Several people had worked with one-to-one assistants, and said that it was generally a positive experience, "as long as she (sic) was patient, unbiased and humble." Some said that being the object of direct observation was very stressful, and caused a great deal of anxiety. At least one respondent was philosophical: "I've had some positive and some negative people who acted like jerks sometimes. But, as it is said, when there's somebody who's in charge of you, a lot of times in your life, it's gonna be a jerk."

The most difficult time in most of their school days, as children, had been in social situations. Lunch, recess or PE class, as well as "the time before school (when) I had to talk with students" were all singled out as the "least favorite time of the school day." If a person had a favorite time at school, it was likely to be "the end of the day – no more people to deal with," or a class which was ordered, and in which expectations were made explicit. Several replied that Resource or Special Ed were their favorite times at school, as "I got to learn how to be independent" in these classes. The same student wrote that his least favorite time was when he was mainstreamed, "Because I had to interact with people who were beyond my level." One man told me that his problems in school started in middle school. With more questioning, I learned that he attended a school taught by Jesuit nuns through grade 6 and then transferred to the public school. "It was overwhelming and chaotic," he told me. "It seemed like there were elbows and arms everywhere – I didn't know what to pay attention to!" In contrast, the nuns wore uniformed habits, showing only their faces, which this student learned to refer to in order to determine whether "they were happy with me, angry with me, or giving me information." He continues to read faces in this same manner today, seeking the same (limited, by social learners' standards) information.

One last question: If you could tell a teacher how you would like to be taught, what would you tell them? From their answers, it seems clear that the teacher be a secondary resource, not a primary one, for learning new information. Over and over again, the response was that "I want to read the lesson ahead of time, and then ask the teacher questions." Like the answer I received about how to write this article, there was an overwhelming preference for written or pictured information. Overall, their memories of school experience were pleasant. As one man says, "If you're going to take a test on chapters 11-15, and you read chapters 11-15, there's a fair chance that you're going to know the information they ask you for on the test. You don't find that in life outside of school." It is clear that individualization was the primary key to successful education for all of the respondents. Although I've mentioned several trends among this group, no one teaching style worked for everyone. Several cautioned me to remember a truism among group members: "If there's anything that can be said about autistic people, it's that we're all different!"

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