Psychology. Education. Advocacy. Research.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Most Important When Teaching a Child With Autism...

The number one thing you will need to teach your child or someone else's child that has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a willingness to learn how he or she learns.  I set forth on this adventurous journey four years ago and believe me when I say I did not have "the willingness to learn how" my non-verbal daughter learned.  I did not have a clue where to begin or how her mind operated.  Furthermore, I would soon figure out that the way I learned many things up to that point, would more than likely be quite different than the way she would learn the same things.

These realities along with my daughter's monumental melt-downs, deficits in receptive understanding, learning disabilities, and short-attention span made me wonder (more than twice) if I would be able to handle all the challenges that were promised to present themselves.  In the process of figuring that out, I realized I would have to go places in my own mind that I never knew existed. To me, it seemed as if I was being required to walk down long tunnels and zig-zag pathways in order to understand how my daughter perceived the world.  During the process of "learning how she learns", I learned a lot about myself.

The Backwards E Turned Forward
I have always pondered how we learn, what we learn, and why we learn the things we learn.  We are raised in a world, a society, and in a family that "passes" down useful methods on how to learn, live, and survive.  However, what I found out was that many of those methods flew out of the window when it came time to teach my little girl phonics, math concepts, telling time, counting money, "how old are you", about the sky, sun, and the planets, and why lower case a's and t's sometimes look different.  I couldn't understand why she continuously forgot what I believed to be the simplest of concepts, such as "more or less".  Why did she write her upper case E's, S's, 2's, D's, and B's backwards?  Why did it seem as if she couldn't understand the easiest questions like "Show me Nemo's dad?"  Even after we had seen Finding Nemo too many times.
Marlin from Finding Nemo

After one solid month of homeschooling, frustration quickly set in.  It got so bad that I couldn't think things through.  I couldn't focus on what lesson to move onto or which lesson to stay with.  My creativity began to wane and I began to wonder, "Am I capable of homeschooling my little girl?"  I started to believe I wasn't.  But one day I stopped everything and watched her play.  I had done this thousands of times, but this time was different.  I began to understand I did not have any idea how the inner workings of my daughter's mind operated.  I made a decision to find out how her mind operates.   This one decision changed our entire homeschooling experience.  

No, it did not get any easier.  I just realized that my own mind had to slow down in order to understand hers (I will add that it seemed like her mind was going a hundred miles per hour, at times).  I decided to stop making her "come out" of her world and I took the time to "go into" her world with her and play games or make-believe.  

Our Home School

Many children diagnosed with an ASD love water, bright lights, and sensory-stimulating games and activities.  I watched my little girl and learned what made her happy and what she liked to do while she was in her world.  I then made the step forward to enter her world.  After a while, my daughter began to see I was genuinely interested in what was going on in her world.  She then became more and more interested in the tasks that I requested her to complete.  This was especially apparent when I brought activities from her world out and used them in our lessons.  In education, this is a form of "motivating through restricted interests".  I found that many times her interests were restricted because she had problems understanding what was going on around her, so she chose to focus on something she could understand.  

The visual mind of a child diagnosed with an ASD is usually quite vivid, bright, and full of sensory-like animations.  Pictures, videos (YouTube), and my own created performances and lessons (real-life & video) is how I was able to teach my daughter about our solar system, the human body, and various other concepts.  Technology also proved to be a great help.  My little girl's father (my husband) created wonderfully, animated PowerPoint presentations that explained the concepts of addition and subtraction.  Worksheets were built using online software, Microsoft Word, and educational websites.  There are many online educational resources that are very user-friendly.  We currently use IXL.com for math and Starfall.com for reading. 

Some of the methods and strategies I used while homeschooling were:

Discrete Trial Teaching (Training) - This website provides you with the all the information you will need to implement this teaching approach.  You will find step-by-step instructions as well as an implementation checklist.

Time Delay Instruction - Here you will find step-by-step instructions, an implementation checklist, and data collection sheets.

Restricted Interests as Motivators - This is a wonderful journal article on how effective this instructional approach can be.  Pixar Animations worked well for my daughter.  She learned to write by writing stories directly from the "beginning reader" books.  She also learned to count, picture name, and read from all of these books.  As she grew older, I used whatever she was interested in to move her from one concept to the next.  Buzz Lightyear did wonders in explaining the "space" concept to her. 
Pixar Animations Worked Wonders! 

Visually appealing instructional environment - word walls, wall areas that are papered up for drawing, painting, and/or writing, age-appropriate songs & poems hanging up, animals, picture concepts, colors, shapes, etc.  

Repetition - The practice of taking a task and repeating it over and over and over.  Sometimes it may take as many as one hundred times before the concept comes to life.  I will admit this "technique" just about drove me mad until right after I realized my little girl was pronouncing words better, her vocabulary began to steadily increase, her writing became more legible, and she began to understand that certain behavior was inappropriate.  The practice of repetition can be very monotonous but once you see the first hurdle the child jumps because of it, it will become apart of how you teach.

"The world" as one big learning environment -  There are great and wonderful things to be learned at the park, at the zoo, at the pool, and everywhere else around the Earth.  The first time my daughter learned how to write her numbers was in the sand at a playground.  FUN!

Four years ago, if someone had told me that my daughter would one day be reading, writing, and doing math, I would never in a million years have believed it would have been because I taught her   We still have a long way to go, but I am very thankful that I was given the opportunity to teach my child for as long as I did.  And more than anything, I am thankful I got to see my daughter's face light up every time she learned something new.  

If you have any concerns or questions or would like to share your experiences, find me on the youAUT2know Facebook page.  Or you could simply leave a comment here.


  1. Maranda, I want to start out by saying you are an amazing mom! I am the mom of four kids on the spectrum, two of whom are nonverbal, so I am well aware of the struggles as well as the joy of discovering what they are capable of. Although my kids attend school, I also work with them at home one on one. I've been using a method called Rapid Prompting Method (RPM)and have had incredible results. It's a great addition to the other methods, and although it is fairly new, there was been a small study done at Cornell which yielded promising enough results to prompt a larger study in the future. I think it's a great addition to other methods such as DTT/ABA, as I think these methods complement one another. I am also pursuing a teaching degree, as I have discovered that I really love teaching! I also have a blog (which I really need to post in more often!), mamacat913.blogspot.com, and if you're interested in RPM, the site is www.halo-soma.org. Keep up the great work, the world needs more moms like you!

  2. Hi Rebecca! Isn't it a wonderful experience to learn more about yourself and your abilities simply by working with our children. Seriously, my life has become so much more full and purposeful, in ways I could never have dreamed of. I have gone through so many places in my own mind that I didn't even know I could get through. And every time I did get through them, it seemed I brought something very valuable through with me. A closer bond to my little girl, a deepened sense of my own existence as well as those around me, a desire to help other people going through similiar circumstances, and more of a "willingness" to understand how the mind of autism functions.

    It is GREAT to connect with you Rebecca! I am always open to advice, tips, and suggestions, so please feel free to share. Have you yet written a blog piece on your experiences with the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM)? If so, I am excited to read how your children (and yourself) have benefited from it. I will take some time later today and read through your blog.

  3. Hi Maranda, it really is amazing what we learn from our children, as well as what we're capable of as parents/teachers. As you can imagine, autism is my life; however, I don't think of it as a negative even with the challenges that it poses. I have learned so much from my children and they have put me on a path that I would never have envisioned 15 years ago! Nothing has been more of a joy and fascination for me than discovering how intelligent and complex the autistic mind really is, and how there are ways of teaching and measuring intelligence that can't be achieved through formalized testing. I have learned so much from my son, and been amazed at things that I didn't know he knew. I have written a bit in my blog about RPM, and plan to write more in the near future. I also plan on filming our sessions over the next few months after I get enough material together. It is a truly amazing method that fits well with other methods. Also, I read the Repetitive Interests as Motivators study and found it to be really interesting; that is also actually something that is often used in RPM, so it's nice to see that a formal study was actually done on that specifically. I hope you get a chance to check out my blog and am always open to feedback. It's always nice to connect with a kindred spirit!