I got an email from one of Jewel’s teachers the other day saying she was having a hard time getting Jewel to do the work in class that is required. She said she knows Jewel is smart in math but is worried she will fall behind if she doesn’t put in the work, and that any “input or advice” from me would be appreciated.
This is exactly the kind of open communication that is needed to help autistics learn and grow in a general education environment. Something seemed to click with Jewel last year when I came up with “Team Triangle”… the concept of Jewel, me and her dad, and the folks at school working together to make sure she gets the support she needs.
Along those lines, it has been a joint effort in coming up with the modifications and accommodations that will help Jewel in the classroom. It’s an impressive list going back through her IEP reports, with standbys that have stood the test of time, others added after something worked on the fly, and some going by the wayside naturally as she grows and matures.
For example, the physical act of writing is a “non-preferred task” for Jewel. The fine motor skills of gripping a pen or pencil don’t come easily to her and many other autistic kids, and trying to align her slow-moving writing skills with her rapidly firing brain is many times an exercise in frustration. Neurotypical kids don’t think twice when told to “pick up their pencils and get to work.” She does.
So, what to do? Some of the modifications we have tried over time are pencil grips so she can grasp something thicker, mechanical pencils that don’t dull, gel pens that flow more easily. Some of the accommodations we have tried include that she is allowed to circle answers or draw lines between columns instead of rewrite them out, or just do the odd-numbered answers to show her knowledge.
When it comes to these accommodations and modifications, some have more weight than others depending on the student and some are more universal than others. Some of the more commonly used ones are allowing more time on tests, allowing tests to be taken in a less-disruptive environment, breaking assignments into small sections and having an aide scribe for the student.
Here are the top accommodations/modifications that have specifically worked the best for us. Feel free to add any and/or all to your IEP reports if they aren’t already in there:
1) Give adequate notice of any change in routine/schedule. A head’s up about a substitute, an assembly, etc., helps Jewel visualize her day and change up that “tape player” she had turned on the morning to adjust to the changes. Routine and predictability is vital to autistic kids and lowers their stress level; any shift in gears can possibly upset them.
2) Build in breaks, and allow for spur-of-the-moment breaks. Sometimes Jewel needs to just retreat to a different area in the classroom, other times she needs to breathe fresh air to relax, and other times she needs a change of venue to gather her thoughts. It takes many, many conversations to help teachers and others understand break requests are overwhelmingly because of overstimulation and self-regulation, and not Jewel’s way of avoiding tasks. With clear and consistent rules, kids must be trusted to know when they have had enough. Denying a break when a child repeatedly asks for one is one of the major causes of escalation.
3) Give preferential seating. For many teachers, having Jewel sit at the front of the class, where they can easily assist her, seems the right thing to do. However, for Jewel, she much prefers to be by the door. The visual of being close to a potential escape without having to run past all those faces helps her stay calm. Also, who she sits next to his important. Nice classmates who support her and don’t judge (peer mentors) are ideal; kids who invade her space, make a lot of “mouth noises” and click their pens are the opposite of ideal.
4) Designate “safe” spots. In early elementary school, Jewel had a beanbag chair in a corner she could go to in the classroom when she needed to calm herself. Beanbag chairs are like swimming in water and weighted vests; the pressure on so much of the body helps with sensory overload and calming the frayed nerves. However, when she eloped out of class, no one knew where she would go. That’s when we added a designated “safe” spot at school (her speech room, and later her special-ed program director’s classroom) to her IEP report. She knows she always has a place to go to and self calm. This has evolved into an outside space being added (the playground or garden area) if fresh air is what is needed.
5) Assist with initiating a task. Self initiation is tough for Jewel … she tells me she would rather not do the work at all than do the “wrong” work and “be laughed at.” As she watches other kids seem to naturally just get to work, she can tense up, blank out or freeze. It takes a teacher or aide to go up to Jewel, calmly, without drawing attention, and help her take the first step. She can go on from there, she just needs to be coached on the first step.
6) Allow “non-typical” classroom materials. Over the course of her school years, Jewel has been allowed to use a timer, pencil grips, gel pens, privacy boards, “fidgets” such as squeeze balls and bendable figures, earplugs … even a photo book I made featuring funny photos of her dog and cat. They have all served a purpose. She is a visual learner, so the timer and schedule kept her on task, others helped her writing, and fidgets and her pet book let her take mental breaks so she wouldn’t need as many physical breaks. Once teachers understand these aren’t ways of escaping work, but actually help with the work, everyone benefits.
Of course, there are lots of other accommodations that can evolve over time and/or never make it into an IEP report but just make sense. For example, it was soon apparent that a combination lock on her middle-school locker would not work for Jewel. The fine motor skills of lining up numbers after three to the right, one to the left, under time pressure, etc. was an unneeded stress. We got permission for her to use a different type of lock, and that source of frustration has been eliminated.
As for Jewel’s math teacher, I let her know that Jewel has trouble with self-initiation, and would need a prompt from her or an aide as she got started on her work in the classroom, to make sure she (literally) was on the right page. I let Jewel know what I had told told the teacher, and she later came up to me and said, “Mom, thanks for keeping me on track at school.” Time stood still, the heavens parted, and for that moment I soared as Supermom, cape and all. Then Jewel looked at me, cocked her head, and critiqued my current outfit and fashion sense, and I crashed back to Earth.