The importance of realistic, high expectations for our autistic children at school

A Teaching Aside

This is about standardized testing and how it can positively influence general academic expectations. I believe far to often we have nowhere near high enough expectations for our children with autism. I will not touch on expectations at home (I will leave those for another post), as I am focusing on the expectations at school.


Far too often in my life, I have observed classrooms wherein the autistic children are basically left to their own devices. This worries me as it leaves the teachers in the role of glorified babysitters and the children to regress into inappropriate patterns of behavior. In my opinion, this often is due to the fact that the teachers know that the autistic children have been exempted from standardized testing or else have no conceivable hope of passing, so they have focused their attention elsewhere. However, over time, this can lead to a lethargy and relaxation of the standards and academic expectations we have of autistic children in the classroom.

One thing I noticed in my brother, Kyle’s life was that had absolutely no problem exceeding expectations. However, if no expectations were placed on him he would just go along doing his thing (often pacing back and forth and stimming with a string while humming). Academically, Kyle was a great student. I think this was because early in his life he learned that there was no excuse for misbehavior at school. He also learned that when he was at school, he got to learn new things and was not bored like he was at home in the summer. When Kyle was at CBTU (now the Carmen B. Pingree Center for Children with Autism) , he was explicitly taught basic attending. This involves, through discrete trial training, teaching the child to sit with their back straight, feet on the floor, hands on the desk ready to write or type, and looking in the general direction of the teacher. Kyle took this to heart (once they got him to comply with training, but that is another story entirely).

As I have been observing classrooms over this last year, I have noticed a trend opposite to Kyle. Even “typical” kids do not appropriately sit ready to learn in school. They claim that they have never been taught to sit the way I do in school, and I am prone to believe them. I walk into autism classrooms and there is a chaos that I find unacceptable because it impedes learning. Errant, off task behaviors are not consistently redirected. Tasks given are far too easy for the grade level or intellectual function of the child. Children are allowed to move to more fun tasks rather than school work if they claim they cannot do it or it is to hard, or they just tantrum and get out of doing any work for most of the day. This is not a good trend. By not pushing our autistic students, we are actively cheating them out of an education. We let them “not be able to do things”, like that is somehow okay. We are leaving our autistic loved ones behind. And we need to knock it off.

Raising expectations

Again I will use Kyle as my example. In high school Kyle had the pleasure of having the hardest teacher in the school for history. Now Kyle loved history. So obviously, Kyle sat there and took furious notes on his laptop to the lectures. He was given an aide to help proctor the test, and Kyle did so well the teacher called BS on it. The teacher thought the aide was taking the test (ignoring the fact that Kyle knew more than the aide did on the topic). So, when it came time for the next test, the teacher proctored the test to Kyle himself to prevent cheating by the aide. Kyle did not only not fail, he did exceptionally well. From that point on, the teacher learned an important lesson. Because Kyle was autistic in no way meant he was retarded or learning disabled. He was just autistic. I am not sure what was expected of Kyle at first, but expectations for Kyle from that point on were exactly the same as for the rest of the students. As they should have been all along. It was highly inappropriate and just plain wrong of the teacher at the outset to assume Kyle was not going to do well because he was autistic. Lucky for Kyle, he had the initiative to show them all that he was not bound by their low expectations. Not all autistic children are so lucky.

My point here is that we should always start with the expectation that these kids are smarter than we think they are (in fact, this is a wise strategy for dealing with all kids). When we find a weakness in the child’s academic performance, we know where to focus our efforts in the future. An important part of this strategy is that we have to set relatively hard academic goals for autistic children. More to the point, we need to set age and grade appropriate goals for our students. If these are lofty goals, then of course we differentiate the goals into smaller goals-but always do everything we can to get the student as close to grade level performance as possible. To do less is to ignore reality; that is to ignore the fact that these kids will have to go out and get jobs in the future, they will have to interact with society. No amount of autism on their part or excuses on our part can mitigate that fact. We cannot let any excuse keep us from giving our all toward working for each and every student’s success.

The role of testing in monitoring expectations

Now let me be clear at the outset. I hate standardized testing. I think it is biased, usually inappropriate for developmentally disabled students, and a poor marker of later academic success. But, as a research colleague of mine once said (taken completely out of context), “…the fact is, someone has to count the beans, otherwise we don’t know that beans are actually being produced.” (Source). In other words, without testing we are left to having to accept everyone’s word that they are progressing as they should.

My school district this coming year will start to administer an alternative assessment tool for Special Education called the Dynamic Learning Maps (I will leave a thorough description of their workings to their website). This assessment tool specifically tests the Essential Elements of the Common Core State Standards for Math and Language Arts. This tool is designed under the specific premise that all students have the right to a grade level and age appropriate education, irrespective special education status. During my training on this tool, one comment was repeated among the group of educators. “We have to step up our game. Big time! This is a whole new world.”

Here is why the Dynamic Learning Maps was developed (out of their grant narrative).

Earlier [state alternative assessments] faced common threats to sound implementation, as identified through the peer review process. First was the mismatch between the required instruction to academic content standards and the common belief that these students could not access a general second, related issue was lack of alignment to grade-level standards and instruction. Because these students were often functioning several years behind their age-peers academically, teachers who did attempt to access the general content standards would often do so at the grade level where the student was believed to be functioning rather than at the student’s actual grade level. As a result, the instructional materials used were age-inappropriate, there was often a lack of challenge, and there was little to no expectation of progress for these students to achieve mastery of grade-level content. These sources of challenge had the opposite effect of what was intended, which was to provide students with every possible opportunity to be exposed to grade-level content and to be supported in learning to the highest possible level of achievement.

Additionally, many students who take [state alternative assessments] have conditions which render some common tasks inaccessible or inappropriate. Rather than finding out what these students can do, in many instances, the administration of common tasks only reinforces knowing what these children cannot do. Thus the lowest performing children have no chance of meeting the proficiency standard. An unintended consequence of such a system might be an incentive to provide fewer resources to the most needy special education students, the exact opposite of what is needed.

What this means is that if we have a 3rd or 4th grade autistic child, we have to give them academic IEP goals for math and language arts that align to grade and age appropriate Essential Elements. Now gone are the days when we could give these children goals to master previous years’ skill set or curricula. We now have to do everything in our power to help the children not only overcome weaknesses in their academic performance resulting from not being explicitly taught in the past, but also we must do our best to help them meet their age appropriate goals moving forward in the future.

Importantly, the nature of this test is longitudinal. There are multiple evaluations during the year and a summative assessment at the end of the year. The idea behind the longitudinal approach is that the data will be able to measure the progress of the students through the year, even if the students are just inching forward. So, even if the child does not reach the full math goals for the year, there will be a quantification of the progress over time that can be used to develop specific education plans moving forward. Also, the student did receive the benefit of working on age and grade relevant materials, preventing them from falling yet another year behind academically.

What I hope for the future

What I truly hope to see moving forward is that all educators raise our expectations of our students, autistic or not, special education or not, girls or boys. I hope long gone are the days of lowballing IEPs to meet cursory or minor goals at the expense of a student’s intellectual development. I hope that gone will be the attitude of “they can’t”, and its replacement with, “They can’t…YET”, or even better “They are still learning how, but stay tuned, they WILL get it”.

I hope that we as educators can use tools like the Dynamic Learning Maps assessments to guide our craft and help us differentiate instruction to make it accessible to all of our students. I hope we are all out of excuses, all out of reasons to not push our kids. They need it. And I hope they will look back at their progress with satisfaction.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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