Autism Education Basics, According to Temple Grandin
Move over, neurotypicals, Dr. Temple Grandin has some advice on the education of children with autism. If you have any exposure at all to autism literature, you’ll have heard of Grandin. Or, for that matter, if you have done any reading in the humane transportation and handling of animals on their way to be slaughtered.
That means you’re as likely to read this Grandin sentence: “Researchers have learned that people with autism have a decreased metabolism in the area in the frontal cortex that connects the brain’s emotional centers with higher thinking (the anterior cingulate),” as this one: “Cows housed in freestall (cubicle) barns had an average of 24.6% of clinically lame cows.”
Deep dives into topics of fascinating interest is a hallmark of autism, and in her education op-ed, Grandin emphasizes that this is not a trait worth fighting, so much as exploiting:
There needs to be more emphasis on building up and expanding the skills a child is good at. Too often people get locked into a label such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism, and they cannot see beyond the label. Kids that get a label often have uneven skills. They may be talented in one area and have a real deficiency in another.
In my case, I was really good at art, but doing algebra made no sense. It is important to work on areas where a child is weak, but an emphasis on deficits should not get to the point where building the area of strength gets neglected.
Interestingly, that’s similar to what Dr. Felice Orlich, program director at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, said in this discussion of girls with autism. With someone with hyperfocus, the naive response might be to try to break that obsessive bond. Said Orlich:
You might want to push against their hyper-focusing, but that would not be a good choice. You need to join it and use it, and then expand from there. With a typical kid, you shift their attention. With autism, you say, I’m going to step into that and leverage that interest. It’s more of an inside-out approach.
“Inside-out”? Grandin, a visual thinker, gives an example of this kind of thing: “ If the child only draws pictures of NASCAR race cars, a teacher could start expanding the fixation by having him draw an Indianapolis-type car or draw sports cars that regular people can buy at car dealerships. The next step of expansion is to draw pictures of places where race tracks are located.” (She even suggests race-car math, and race-car literature.)
If children are gifted in a particular area, Grandin cautions against the temptation to “hold them back,” so that they stay with the rest of the class. Boredom will create behavior problems. Instead, it’s better to let the student work at his or her own pace, she says, or have them tutor others, which can help develop social skills. (Elsewhere, Grandin mentions that many people with autism approach social situations as a sort of problem to be solved; tutoring works with that mindset.)
Another key element–that Grandin deals with less explicitly–is the influence that a particular teacher can have, if a child with autism has bonded with him or her. Grandin, who as a little girl loved drawing the heads of horses, mentions her mother “rewarded” her when she drew other things by framing them. Because children with autism are likely to bond closely with fewer people than neurotypical children (assuming these really exist), there’s a greater intensity when they do and, in the case of a teacher they like, a greater incentive to perform well.
Many parents will already know what a difference a single teacher can make, especially when it comes to coaxing children out of comfort zones. It’s something to think about in a school system where teachers are considered fungible cogs. That’s not how a child with autism sees things.