The challenges ahead…

A Teaching Aside

I have now been at my new job for a week. I have identified the main challenges ahead for the rest of the school year.

This post is intended to identify and clearly describe challenges that can arise when teaching and working with children and adolescents with autism within a public school system. I feel this is important as not everyone can afford at home therapy or early interventions not covered specifically by insurance (i.e., ABA, speech therapy, etc). Often times, small group classrooms, self containment classes, or general resource classes are the first real exposure to specialized education that has been possible for children with autism.

My role as a Section 504 para-educator

One hat I put on every day is to work directly with a young man with autism as a part of his section 504 plan. This means that he is placed in the mainstream curriculum for a portion of the day, with only the assistance of a para-educator. No other accommodations have been made. In essence, my role in his education is to simply keep and eye on him and make sure he is on task and paying attention. Otherwise he has a tendency to zone out and stare at the ceiling or out in space for 10+ minutes at a time.

This sounds easy enough, and it is, but within the first day the teacher and I noticed a few things…

The challenge

At the end of my first day, the teacher approached me and said she thought that the previous aide in my position was being too helpful. This was a problem since everyone was under the clear impression that this student had made huge leaps and bounds in his academic performance with this previous aide and that he would be able to be fully mainstreamed with only a 504 aide starting the next year because he clearly was able to do the work.

However, when I came in, I took my job literally and just sat there next to this student and gave probes for him to get back to work and to pay attention to the teacher at the front of the room. I left it to the teacher to give him hints to make the assignments easier or actually “help”. I only repeat the questions and read back to him what he had written to spur him into writing more; and when he said he was done with an answer, we moved on. The difference in the work with me and with the previous aide is very clear. Within this first week of working with him, I have uncovered a number of academic deficiencies that need improvement. This in itself is not the challenge, the challenge is that now the teacher and I have been working to go through the sum total of assignments for the year to try and determine when the words are those of the aide and when they were this student’s. So far it appears 80:20 para-educator:student. This is not good. It means we do not actually know where he stands academically.

Even in the short span of a week, I have noticed that this student has a few habits that I think the previous aide gave him. He is very quick to say, “I don’t know” and then look to me for the answer. My answer invariably is, “then think about it” and I do not help other than to re-read what he has written and look a him to finish it. For the first few days he shut down and bucked at my answer, but since I am patient and can wait him out, he is responding better since he has caught on that he cannot get out of the work. Similarly, he likes to say, “I hate this” (especially during math), and look to me for some kind of sympathy. There is none. My response to this is one I learned from my mother. I simply say, “That is your right, we can hate math all we want, we still have to do it”. And then I point to the question and tell him to get to work. This response clearly irritates him, but he gets to work rather than continuing complaining. To be honest, I think it is great he will actually straight up tell me what he likes and what he hates, it lets me know when he needs help and when he has it down without my assistance.

I also know things are difficult and I am pushing him beyond the level he is accustomed when the frequency of his Tourette-like motor stereotypies/stims increases dramatically, particularly when I push him. Having grown up with a twin brother on the autism spectrum, I see these stims as what they are, he is releasing his frustration and energy. When I wait out these stims, he is able to immediately get back to work. In some weird way, it almost seems like my ability to ignore these tics puts him at ease and he is able to immediately get back to work because I am not constantly trying to correct these behaviors.

Now to be clear, I do not believe that this previous para-educator was in any way actively trying to game the system to make themselves look good or to do the work for this student. I think the aide likely just unconsciously wanted to see success so much that they provided too much guidance when trying to motivate this student. It is an easy thing to do, we all get impatient because we can see the answer, and we may give 10-15% too much information that gives away the answer. Or else we accidentally point at the multiple choice questions to orient him and we are pointing to the correct answer. We also brighten up when he is guessing and falls upon the correct answer. None of these are helpful behaviors when teaching because it gets the child out of working and learning.

The Clever Hans effect

Clever Hans (Wikipedia Entry) was a horse that was able to perform arithmetic, count, and perform other intellectual tasks. However, when a psychologist/researcher really watched the horse, they realized that the horse was watching the human observers for minuscule cues that would tell the horse to stop, because he had come upon the correct answer. In no cases did the trainer and other human observers intentionally help the horse, they just wanted to see success so much that they influenced the horse’s behavior.

Interestingly, the researcher developed experiments wherein he acted as the horse and would read people’s mind when they thought of numbers or math problems. He was able to simply watch body language and was able to get the right answers. He determined most people raise their heads slightly when he hit the right answer so he would stop. Easy. This means that simple body language on my part is enough to influence other’s behavior.

My point in bringing up the Clever Hans effect is that I think this is exactly what we often do with students with autism. We want them to succeed so much that we bias their performance. This is the observer-expectancy effect. If I really want a student to succeed I may respond a certain way on a multiple choice test when they reach the right answer (hold my breath, hum, relax my posture, etc), or in a short answer test or math test give them the next step to solve the problem rather than simply probe them to keep working. This is particularly an issue with children on the spectrum because they notice our body movements, postures, breathing, humming, etc. This heightened awareness of what is going on around them makes it so they see all of our little tells before we even know we are doing them.

The reason I came to this conclusion early on was that I am trained in animal behavior. I spent 15 years of my life training rats and mice to do memory tests. I also spent the same 15 years teaching undergraduate student volunteers how to not help the rats and mice perform the task. We had one woman that would unintentionally help the rats find the goal location by actively cheering it on. When the animal got close to the goal she got very excited and you could hear it in her voice. She was not intentionally helping the rat, but we had to throw out the data because it was possible that the rat would simply run randomly until it heard a happy squeal, then it would search for the goal from there because it knew it was close. Thus saving itself a whole lot of effort in learning the maze. It just had to learn how to read this one person. Much easier.

The solution to this situation is not easy. I have to spend the 4 hours a day I am working with this student paying very close attention to myself as well as to this student. I have to be cognizant of my own behavior and movements so that I can keep myself from influencing his answers. I have a very strong desire to see him learn and perform well in his schoolwork because I can see potential. But my main focus has to be that he performs well at school. Not that we perform well. It is a work in progress but I think we are making a good start.

My role as a Special Education IEP para-educator

The other hat that I put on every day is to work directly with a small group of K-2 children on the autism spectrum. Given the nature of this classroom, none of these children have Asperger syndrome or PDD-NOS. This is a group of particularly challenging students that are either bussed in from a wide area in the school district or else have been pulled out of the mainstream classes for being overly disruptive or dangerous to other students.

The role of gender in working with children with autism

When I arrived on my first day, I made the teachers in this classroom rather happy. The children all particularly liked it when there was a sub that was male. They always got super agitated and were hard to control because they just wanted to jump and climb on the new boy.

One of the things I noticed early on was that there was a lot of food reward for good behavior going on. Coming from animal work, I have always been skeptical of food reward because it only works if the kids are very hungry, which these children are not. I figured a better way to manage behavior was to use myself as a reward. If one of the children was exceptionally attentive and on task, I would pay attention to them and ask them questions about whatever their topic of interest was. When they were being disruptive or a pain, I moved them away from me and made them stay removed for 2 minutes. The lack of access to “me” was sufficient to motivate the children to stay on task when they were at my table.

The challenge for me in this situation comes when I have to discipline or correct the children for doing things that are clearly wrong (like bolting out of the classroom and sprinting down the halls). My mother was always able to use a simple 4 step strategy.

  1. Say, “Johnny, Please do X”
  2. Say, “Johnny, I need you to do X”
  3. Say, “Johnny, I need you to do X NOW!”
  4. If they do not do what you ask you make them do what you are asking them to do.

I cannot do this. As a male, if I raise my voice or get agitated, children with autism have a tendency to shut down and act fearful. Beyond that, with time I am sure the students would wait until I got more and more loud to respond each day, and that puts me in a situation I do not want to be placed in. That of having to sound angry and yell at a small child.

My theory about this comes from the stories these kids have been telling me as well as general observation of American society. By and large, it is the father who has to enforce the rules at home. How many of us have heard, “Wait until your father gets home…” from our mother when we have misbehaved. Usually that means a spanking or dressing down is coming when the male authority gets home.

The problem with this approach, particularly for children with autism, is that the dressing down or physical correction often happens 3-4 hours after the problem behavior. So correction is received and interpreted as just a random punishment that does not serve to correct problem behavior. Needless to say, I cannot use my “big strong male” as a way of controlling or correcting these children in class: regardless whether it would work or not.

I almost hate to admit, but my solution is very, very similar to The Dog Whisperer. I have to constantly stay in a calm yet assertive state. The kids have to know that I am in charge and that they cannot phase me. Nothing they can do will get a rise out of me, so they give up trying to get my goat by testing me. My solution thus far has been to calmly sprint down the hall (yes, calmly sprint) after one child that is a runner, wait out his inevitable tantrum, ask if he is done, than walk him by the hand to the classroom and immediately take away his favorite things and force him to earn them back again through good behavior. When the children start trying to beat each other up I have to get between them and teach them that the teachers are the ones who provide discipline, not the children. In fact, there are a few children that will literally run across the room to punch or kick another student that does something disrespectful or wrong, because they see that this person needs to be punished. My “calm, assertive” approach is working thus far, though the kids are still trying to argue with me about them having a role in punishing their peers!

This form of calm discipline is necessary, for reasons I learned because a child told me about during this week when he felt particularly trusting.

The influence of a child’s home life on their educations

We have three types of home influence that dramatically changes how we have to handle each of the children in class.

  1. Parents are constantly having a child’s drug regime changed, so his behavior has more to do with side effects than autism
  2. We have one child with diagnosed PTSD due to severe neglect (I will spare details)
  3. We have children openly talking about when authority figures hit them (“[B]ut never too hard, so [I] can take it because [I’m] tough”)

So…how do I handle these challenges in a classroom? Any behaviors that directly result from these home influences are simply the child’s coping mechanism. I cannot discipline a child that is running around telling me he hates me and is planning to kill me while he is soaking wet from a cold sweat and clearly having a panic attack because of the combined side effects from his drug regimen. I cannot punish or isolate a child that has been the victim of criminal neglect. I cannot provide any sort of physical discipline or manual correction to a child that may be physically disciplined at home.

My approach has been to learn and let the children teach me how they want to be corrected. Each child has been just open enough with me that I know what it is that makes them tick (even the nonverbal children). Which children are obsessed with Legos, which ones with Pokemon, which ones with drawing, and which ones by eating the Play-Dough. I am also starting to learn how to pinpoint the moments when individual children are starting to ramp up into anxiety or about to act out, so I can cut them off and redirect their energies before things go too far. And importantly, I am starting to distinguish between inappropriately disruptive behaviors I need to correct and the motor stereotypies/stims that I need to just wait out.

Overall, I am hopeful that I can be of use to these children and adolescents with autism. I am doing my best to simply observe and let them tell me what my role in their life is. And they are telling me in their own ways. I do hope they continue teaching me, because I am keen to keep learning everything they are willing to share.


An important point I have to mention here is that absolutely none of the behaviors I describe in this post are anything I blame these children for. All of these behaviors are relatively appropriate adaptive responses to the challenges that are laid at their feet by the school, family, friends, and society at large. I know these children are doing the best they can to make sense of a world that often does not make a whole lot of sense, and I applaud them for it. I see my role in their education as a guide. Hopefully they will accept me in this role and let me do everything I can to help them be successful moving forward.


4 thoughts on “The challenges ahead…

  1. Well, were do I start. Welcome to the world of Autism. Working with autistic individuals can be very difficult to say the least. And to be frank with you it’s not for everyone. I have two boys with autism and I find it’s hard to redirect them when they are being attentive. It take a lot of understanding the disability. And I’ve found many parents and paraprofessionals in treatment that are not always realistic. Some expect them to learn and understand as a normal child. The truth is that so much is happening in their brain it’s hard to focus on anything. Just stay strong, keep you chin up and take it day be day.


    1. Fortunately for me, I grew up with autism in my family. The primary lesson I learned was that Kyle was not being a butted by and large, he was responding the best he could to the illogical thing we did and required of him.

      Thank you for your advice, I appreciate all that I can get! My approach in working with children on the spectrum is to behaviorally identify what it is they need from me and provide it for them. Once I am working within their paradigm, then I can teach them the lessons they need to move forward because I am now allowed to join them in their attention.

      Just stay strong, keep you chin up and take it day be day.

      Words to live by indeed!


  2. I am an occupational therapist, working with children and teens in public schools, and I agree that it is very important to be a careful observer, especially with children with autism, though all children, with or without special needs, can show us a great deal of what they need. I don’t have much to add, though I sometimes wish that all support staff were able to take your approach with the children they work with!


    1. Thanks. It is hard for those of us in schools to pay this kind of attention at times. Especially teachers when their attention has to be split among 12-30 students.

      I do agree, we need to listen to these kids and let them tell us what they need. Fairly often they actually will tell us what they want, and it is much less than what we would have offered! To be frank, I am just happy to be in my position and to be able to take the time and listen.


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