Autism: Changing the Fabric of Education

Abandon girl

This year has been an interesting journey for me as an educator as I find my role to be increasingly one that is ‘teaching the teacher’. I came to this place by osmosis in a way as I sought to share more about autism awareness and how this knowledge can change the way a teacher teaches this unique student clientele.

I offer a number of courses on Autism Awareness and Using iPads in the Classroom Setting and I’ve been inspired by the passion and dedication by the many teachers who have taken these courses. Most have sought answers to the lack of knowledge they have on Autism and are desperate to make a difference to their students. Over the last two terms, I’ve felt excited and heartened that so many teachers not only want to make a difference, but want to ‘be’ that difference and have been open to make even the smallest change to help their students.

Autism is an increasing problem in education. The statistics in Australia are that 1 in 88 children are being born with Autism, which means in 15 years we are going to have 1 in 88 adults who will be on the Spectrum.  We have to as a community start thinking about the bigger picture and some significant changes need to occur as to how we approach this issue.

There is NO ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problem that is Autism. I think we need to spend less time on trying to finding a ‘cure’ and invest more energy into understanding the condition. There is a saying that “if you know one child who has Autism, you know one child who has Autism”.  So this tells us NO child is the same, therefore NO one therapy or intervention will work for every child.  However, what we do need as teachers is education, knowledge and awareness. Simply knowing how these children ‘think’ ; that they tend to be more visual, can instantly change the teaching dynamic. Knowing that many children on the Spectrum can’t look you in the eye because it is uncomfortable and even painful for them means that you won’t spend a huge amount of your teaching time insisting that your students look you in the eyes. Being aware that sitting to the side of a student on the Spectrum is far less intimidating than facing them can be the key that opens up trust and connection.

One thing I believe Autism teaches us is the nature of individualism and uniqueness. We just can’t put children in a box, irrespective of whether they have Autism OR if they are ‘neurotypical’.
All children learn differently. All children have different skills and abilities. All children have different interests. Some children will learn visually, some by doing, some verbally and some emotionally. Some children love Math and don’t like English; some love Science but don’t like Sport.  Doesn’t it make sense to create a differentiated curriculum to suit each child?

Does this idea make the job of the teacher harder?  Initially, yes. There will be more work and preparation to do, but ultimately if the child loves what they are learning, then behaviour problems will diminish, motivation will increase, concentration will improve and children will WANT to attend school.

The principle is the same for children on the Spectrum. Before I even consider a program for my students I need to spend some time observing, assessing and connecting. I need to understand how my student learns, what motivates them and what their sensory issues are. Each program needs to be uniquely and individually tailored to that child.

Parents with children on the Spectrum need our support. They need our understanding and they need our awareness. We owe children this!  Not only because of the benefits to them individually, but we owe it to them because as a community, we will be better off when we understand the importance and value of the Autism mind.

One of the greatest gifts I can give to parents is to ‘get it’. To understand what they are experiencing, to understand their child; and to see what they see in their child. I see parents’ faces light up when I recognize their children as more than just autistic. They often resolve to tears when I say “oh your child has the ability to achieve; we just have to find what motivates his desire to learn.”

 painted smiley on human fingers

Parents of children on the Spectrum are no longer willing to accept ‘less than’ education. Dr Tony Attwood, a well know expert on Asperger’s Syndrome said, “Parents of children on the Spectrum have a PHD in their child”. I find this to be profoundly true. They’ve also battled systems and authorities and have been constantly told to give up as their child will never achieve anything. Can you imagine how disheartening this must feel? Parents of students who have any kind of ‘disability’ are often the hardest to deal with because they’ve had to battle the hardest.  By the time that they get to school, they are in combat mode! Just letting them know you’re on their side will make a world of difference and YOU can’t just say it, you have to ‘be’ on their side. Parents after all want to be collaborators in their child’s education.

I view Autism through the eyes of potential and when I communicate this concept to parents I give them hope. Let’s make the path easier by supporting faster diagnosis methods, funding for support and therapies, and funding for community, education and professional awareness programs. In ten years we need these children to be shining with potential and productive, thriving members of society. Please watch this Ted Talk by Chris Varney. It is not only inspiring, but life changing for any educator.

by Karen Barley

“Taking education into the 21st Century”

Karen Barley is an internationally recognized educational consultant specializing in the needs of children with autism and their families. She has over 25 years of expertise as an educator, private one-on-one consultant, course developer and educational technology specialist.
Karen is especially successful connecting with children who have autism and creating behavioral, sensory and educational strategies that help children reach their full potential. Her highly personable style, combined with extensive research, knowledge and firsthand experience of the needs of children with autism, makes her extremely effective and innovative in tailoring individual solutions for families and their schools. Using new and existing approaches Karen integrates her pioneering work with iPad technology to create differentiated educational programs where children with autism can consistently experience success while learning.

In addition, Ms. Barley is an accomplished and engaging, sought after public speaker and teacher trainer. She has shared her significant insights and knowledge on such subjects as, Technology in Education, Technology and Autism, Autism Awareness, 21st Century Learning, Technology and Curriculum Development and other subjects in the United States, Australia and as a keynote guest speaker for international face to face and online conferences.



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2 thoughts on “Autism: Changing the Fabric of Education”

  1. A great insight. It is refreshing to see classroom teachers taking greater responsibility for these students rather than just relying on the limited resources of the Learning Support team.

  2. I agree Kirsten. The first few years of ‘training’ teachers on this subject was often a struggle as there were many dissenters out there. Some (not all) teachers want kids who are on the ‘spectrum’ to fit inside the box and unfortunately they do not. This last year, however I’ve seen a shift. I’ve always believed that 99% of the teaching profession are ‘good’ (for want of a better word here)…let’s face it no-one chooses this profession for the money. Most teachers go into teaching because they want to make a difference, they are philosophical and humanitarian. Anyway , we have to continue to educate and inform.

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