A view from Jewel’s seat in the classroom

This is the first year of middle school for Jewel, which means multiple teachers with varying styles and experience. At a status meeting about what’s working and not working several weeks into it, these are the key points, tips and tricks I will give teachers to shed light on what it’s like for Jewel in the classroom. I’ll let you know how it goes over next week.

TIPS FOR MIDDLE-SCHOOL TEACHERS

My autistic daughter’s brain is wired differently; she’s trying to plug her XBox brain into a Playstation world. Her IEP and support systems are in place to guide you to ensure she gets the free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to which she is legally entitled. She needs predictability and well-structured classrooms in which rules are consistent, clear and concise.

Middle school is difficult for every child. This isn’t the time to make an example of my daughter or get into a battle of wills. She is already at a disadvantage socially because she doesn’t instinctively know the unwritten social rules that neurotypical people do. You must understand her motivations are not disrespect or defiance. They are fear of failure and not being seen as smart because she doesn’t know what others know naturally. She’s been laughed at too many times and carries that hurt.

In the classroom, she thinks she is following and enforcing “the rules” as she sees them. When her classmates listen to you go back and forth with her, or worse, kick her out of class, you’ve caused damage to her beyond those classroom walls. Please pause, restate your instructions in simple language, encourage her and place demands on hold. Making more or repeated demands when she has not processed the first set is the best way to ensure escalation and a meltdown. A meltdown is not a temper tantrum: a tantrum is when someone is trying to get what he/she wants, a meltdown is when there is too much sensory information to process.

Here are eight tips to remember:

  1. Transition warnings (and a routine) are important.

My daughter has problems with initiation. If you say, “Get to work,” neurotypical kids know that means take out their workbooks, look up the pages, remember what was just taught, etc. It takes her longer to go through these steps and come up with a game plan; it’s called sensory processing delay. She many times needs a specific prompt. “Here are the problems we are working on. Remember you are looking for the ratios.” Get her started, and she will finish. Tolerance is the key part of this.

  1. She is literal.

If you say, “Don’t interrupt” when another student is presenting a project, she thinks she is not allowed to react at all. The squirming and “not paying attention” you see outwardly is her trying to ignore the student because she wants to react so badly and believes she has been told she can’t. Don’t assume disrespect; dig deeper with her. Figurative language can send her mind off course; your reference to something being “a piece of cake” puts her at the bakery counter eyeing the selections. It takes some time to get her back, which means she probably missed part of the lesson.

  1. She needs extra time. 

Use simple phrasings and short sentences. Scaffold instructions, giving just a couple at a time and then building on that. It might appear to you she is staring off into space or not following directions; most of the time, she is just processing what is expected of her in the quickest way she can. Simple prompts help; harsh words and scolding do not. Telling her to do something and then counting down has no value; it makes her unable to process the instructions because she is focusing on the descending numbers. Trying to hurry her will only slow her down.

  1. It’s all about visual learning.

She needs to see something to interpret it, not just hear it. Posted schedules, assignments, etc. are always helpful.  If you show her what you regard as a well-done assignment or project looks like, she will know better what she should shoot for. Any time you can share notes, graphics and samples that she can see, it helps her. Also, you might notice she takes notes sometimes that are undecipherable to you or I, but she understands them.

  1. Any help with social interactions would be appreciated.

You can do at school what we can’t do at home: encourage my daughter to interact with her peers, and her peers to interact with her, in positive manners. Sit her next to tolerant, open-hearted classmates who will help her and whom she can look up to and model her behavior.

  1. Sensory issues are a key distraction.

Did you know the fluorescent lights in your classrooms pulse? She does; the whole room pulses with them in her head. The hum of the black cable box she also finds impossible to tune out. Her classmates’ pen-clickings feel as if someone is actually snapping something inside her ear. Certain textures, smells, the sight of a green witch…she will physically recoil with disgust. Please be mindful of this.

  1. Don’t question her effort.

She is motivated to do well in school by her desire to go to college and start her own business. If she isn’t doing what’s expected, look for the cause. Is it fear of failure? Or is it she doesn’t know what “show your work” means, because she can look at a problem and instantly figure it out, no “work” necessary? She says she can’t “show how her brain does that.” Support and encourage, don’t doubt her abilities.

  1. The unspoken rule of deference to teachers/adults is lost on her.

Trust me, I’ve put my ego on hold since she could talk. It is something we work on daily and she hasn’t mastered; don’t take it personally. She’s a work in progress.

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