Teaching English to Autistic Learners
What is Autism?
Autism is short for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The word autism comes from the Greek word self. ASDs include a wide range of developmental disorders, ranging from moderate to severe. Some people with ASDs are non verbal, while others are socially impaired but intellectually gifted.
ASDs are usually diagnosed before the age of three and are more prevalent in males. While the negative symptoms of ASD may improve greatly over time and with therapy, the disorder remains with a person for a lifetime. And, despite being called a "disorder" there are many positive characteristics and abilities that autistic people posses.
Children with ASD often have one subject that they are extremely interested in. They may also have one skill that they excel at. At least 25% are classified as high-functioning (HFA). High-functioning autistic children typically develop normal language skills over time, even though this is often noticeably delayed.
Asperger's syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism. People with Asperger's tend to have strong or even gifted language skills, and are therefore well-suited to foreign language study. Those with Asperger's do have social impairments that can interfere with learning communicative skills in general. They may dislike or have difficulty working in groups. Maintaining eye contact may also be extremely difficult.
Cause of Autism
The specific cause of ASD remains unknown. However, studies suggest that it is linked to both genetics and environmental factors. Many scientists believe ASDs result from a disruption of prenatal brain development. If one identical twin has autism, there is a 90% chance the other twin will as well.
Symptoms and Signs
Since ASDs include a wide spectrum of disorders, ranging from severe to moderate, there is also a wide range of associated signs and symptoms. As any parent or teacher of an autistic child will attest, there are positive and negative characteristics that go along with autism. Here are a wide variety of signs and symptoms that may be present or noticeable in an autistic student:
- has an intense focus or passion on one interest
- can copy accents quite easily
- does not lie or cheat
- doesn't criticize or judge others
- has a good memory
- memorizes acceptable responses
- is not concerned about social expectations
- is not overly concerned about outer appearance and hygiene
- is not materialistic
- becomes attached to routine
- has delayed speech
- has an inability to point or follow pointing
- refuses to make eye contact
- uses limited gestures
- has difficulty imitating or pretending
- has difficulty understanding feelings
- uses facial gestures that do not match feelings
- avoids physical contact
- has difficulty with unstructured activities that have no beginning or end
- has difficulty filtering out background sounds
- has self-abusive behaviour
- exhibits repetitive motions
- refers to oneself in third person
- has trouble making friends
- dislikes open doors
- has a strong adherence to rules and language
- has difficulty with small talk
- has difficulty reading body language
- has difficulty keeping a conversation going
- doesn't acknowledge the presence of others
- feels stressed out when a routine is changed
- has meltdowns for reasons that may be difficult to pinpoint
- sensitive to sound, light, taste and other senses
- speaks too quickly and at the wrong volume
- speaks for too long or in too much detail according to social standards
- has a literal understanding of words and phrases (difficulty with idioms, metaphors, jokes, sarcasm)
Autism in the Classroom
Most students with autism require a specific style of teaching and a supportive learning environment. In most cases, autistic students have an individualized education program (IEP) that parents and teachers develop together. Some students may require a teaching aid at all times, while others will require extra help during certain periods or classes. Many autistic students flourish in a regular classroom, while others perform better in one-on-one or small class settings.
Problems typically arise with autistic students when there is a lack of communication between the parents and the educators and when teachers are not supported or equipped with tools, resources, and proper training. Parents often become experts in their child's individual needs, and can provide excellent support for teachers. Finding peers who work well with autistic students is also important.
Autism and Language Learning
Many parents who have children with autism wonder if it’s a bad idea to communicate with them in more than one language. Since ASDs often involve language impairment, some parents don't want to add an unnecessary burden by exposing an autistic child to more than one language.
Without fully understanding current research, some general practitioners have recommended that parents of autistic kids speak English rather than a home language in a country where English is the official language. However, there is little evidence to prove that exposing an autistic child to a second language will impede language learning. In fact, studies suggest that reducing a language impaired child’s exposure to a home language can make it even more difficult for the child to socialize even within his or her own family. By not using the mother tongue, parents exclude their child from conversations. Autistic children typically struggle socially, and are more likely to pick up language from their parents than their peers. Parents with a low proficiency of a second language may have difficulty communicating with their autistic children. If these parents choose to make English their primary source of communication, this can create more language problems. As with all language learners, autistic children need regular exposure to both languages.
Autism often comes with a literal understanding of words. Understanding colloquialisms and idiomatic English may be very difficult for autistic language learners. On the other hand, many students on the autism spectrum excel at memorization, and may be able to acquire a large vocabulary, making it easier to understand and replicate formal written and spoken language than their language learning peers. Autistic students appreciate rules and structures and may enjoy learning the grammar of a second language.
Strategies for Teachers of Autistic Language Learners
- use pictograms
- stick to a routine
- wait until the student is ready and paying attention before providing instructions
- offer clear objectives for an activity
- maintain a structured learning environment
- use timers
- focus and build on strengths
- give plenty of warning if a supply teacher is coming
- take notes about when meltdowns happen; try to identify triggers and patterns
- determine if learner also suffers from dyslexia
- find ways to incorporate a strong interest or passion in the learning
- require your student to communicate (it may be their only chance in the day)
- use modelling
- pair with a sensitive student who is advanced or mature and can act more like a teacher
- use a set seating plan
- use visual support for instructions and schedules
- provide large spaces and comfortable seating that allows the student to move around
- provide instructions in both languages
- prepare for a longer silent period
- watch for bullying (approximately half of autistic kids suffer from bullying)