My tenth grade English teacher, Amber Tesh, had never had a nonverbal, non-writing student in her class before. She said, in her speech at the Spectrum of Opportunity conference at Cal Lutheran University, that she already had more kids than she was supposed to have in her Honors English class when she was approached by a counselor asking if she could take on another student. “He’s really intelligent,” she told her, “Oh, and he has nonverbal autism and he communicates by pointing to letters.”
I had a great experience in her class because she connected directly to me, not my aide (called a BI, behavioral interventionist, in her answers). Before she spoke on the educators panel at the Cal Lutheran conference she was asked to address the following questions and these are the answers she wrote out. I hope that her suggestions help other educators of neurotypical students who might be surprised to find themselves suddenly dealing with something unfamiliar so that it can be a positive experience for everyone..
Below are the suggestions of Mrs. Tesh.
1. What has worked? What have you learned?
- Speak to your class beforehand if possible. Ask the student (which I did with Ido) if he was okay with me talking to the class about why he typed and why he needed to communicate in that way. I think if we hide the obvious, the class becomes left out or confused, which in turn causes chaos.
- Relinquish control to the BI. Allow them to handle issues that might arise. Give them the control to excuse the student or step outside. Try not to step in or interfere with their job – even if you think “they CAN’T leave now!!!”
- Form a relationship with the student and BI. It’s hard to wait for a student to type out an answer, especially if the entire class is eager to respond or are calling out. Have a special signal or gesture so that the teacher knows when the student is typing out an answer. Make it clear to the class if the wait is a bit longer than expected – I would often say, “I am waiting for Ido on this one” and the class just stopped and waited.
- Seat the student by the door if they need to step out or take a break.
- For the first few group activities (if you do group activities) – the teacher should form the groups. When students form groups they pair up with who they know and where they feel comfortable. Students get very uncomfortable quickly when they don’t know how to act in a certain situation or with a certain person. For many students in your class, this might be the first time they have been in a class with someone with autism or someone who types. Their first reaction is going to be to group up with friends, and then students get left out. Once students realize how smart and communicative the student is, they are eager to form groups. This happened with Ido. After a few weeks, I had people asking him to join their group.
- Allow the student to finish things at home. Certain things are just too hard to get done in a class period.
- Ask the student “enough” questions to ensure they got it. Then you will feel okay with them finishing at home.
2. What supports do YOU need/find helpful/valuable to YOUR success?
- A good BI
- A place for them to go to work if it’s not the best day or need extra time
- A strong support system at home
- A strong counseling staff that places the student where he/she would be most successful
- Information about previous classes – what worked and what didn’t?
- Advice on how to give / space out / time assignments (might come from IEP, counselor, BI, inclusion specialist)
3. What advice do you have for other teachers? students? administrators?
- Teachers – #1 is giving it a chance. As teachers we tend to be scared or thrown off by the unexpected or what we don’t know – and to be honest, having a student who types to communicate is a bit unexpected and scary. If we are nervous about something before we even try it, we tend not to do the best job. So, if teachers just give it a chance it’s actually just everyday business.
- Teachers – As said in question #1 – talk to your students. There is no point in hiding the obvious. It might not be the most comfortable conversation, but they have to be able to recognize and accept differences.
- Teachers – Make sure you feel comfortable that the student is actually doing the work. My biggest challenge was “Is Ido actually doing this writing / work”? I mean you have this young man, who at first didn’t participate at all and would often times have to step out of class for long periods of time – and then he would turn in this work that even my brightest honors kids couldn’t do. So you have to come to a confident place that they are listening to you and completing the work on their own – even if someone else might be writing it down for them. *Ido note: This is handled by observing the student communicating, typing and answering questions. It also becomes clear by relating directly to the student in conversation and questions and answers, but at first it is a novel experience for the teacher and seeing that the student is communicating is essential for teacher confidence.
- Administrators – need to talk to their teachers. Ask them which class would be the best for the student. Lets be honest, as teachers there are just certain classes that are better or more “equipped” then others.