Help Autistic Kids Help Themselves

A Personal Aside

Note: I choose to avoid person first language at the direct request of autistic individuals with whom I interact in real life as well as on the internet. I choose to err on the side of referring to autistics in the way they tell me to rather than follow a political convention.

Today I had to apply the CPS model, described here, with two autistic students. Both of these students have demonstrated major behavioral issues this school year and were even worse today, the first day back from a 10-day spring break.

The TL;DR of this post is that communicating with autistic kids is the best way to help them solve their own problems, rather than trying to impose solutions upon them.

How I approach working with autistics

Based on my life experiences with my twin brother, Kyle, I have learned to never underestimate an autistic. In fact, I often favor assuming autistics have a much greater ability than what is immediately apparent. I also wholeheartedly believe that the basic human need for compassion, understanding, and communication is stronger in autistics than any of us realize.

That being the case, I approach any behavioral issue with an autistic student as I would approach an issue with myself at that age. They either lack the ability to communicate what they need or what they lack in a way that the rest of us understand, or else they are feeling some emotional state that needs a resolution–again lacking the communication skills to access their needs. These two options apply both to Kyle and myself, so I go with it as a rough guide.

When I see a student misbehaving–one student today was trying to hurt others and to cause chaos in the classroom and the other student was running out of the classroom–I approach them for a conversation. I do this paying no regard to the student’s communication skills. I consider it my job to understand what they are communicating, not their job to make me understand.

Specific Example

Student 1

I will call this student Erin. I walked into a classroom and this student was peeling the name cards off the tables in the classroom. They then ran across the room and punched two students, and ran behind the teacher’s desk. I went over to Erin and got on their level. I asked them what they needed in order to work.

Erin said, “Toys”.

“Toys?” I said. ‘Tell me, what does [Erin] need to do to get toys”

Erin: “[Erin] needs to work first, then toys. Work first, then toys. [Erin] needs toys to work.”

DH (me): “So [Erin] needs toys to work. Do you need to see toys to earn? What do you mean? How can I help you? What do I need to do to help you work?” (I know this is too many questions, but they are rephrases of the same questions, I was hoping Erin would answer one of them).

E: “[Teacher] erased my board. [Teacher] broke the rules. No toys. No toys. No work for 5 minutes. No first work then toys. No!” (At this point Erin sprinted across the room and tipped a chair with a student still sitting in it while staring at the teacher).

DH: “[Erin], do you need to come talk to Dr. H in private?”

E: “Yes, now please [gives name of teacher’s room to go to] please.”

DH: “Okay, talk”

E: “Dr. H please work first then toys. Work first then toys. Work then toys. Work 5 minutes and then toys 2 minutes. [Erin] control the timer. Work first then toys. Please now.”

DH: “How do I do this. How can I help [Erin] do this?”

E: “Big marker and white board” (they brought me a sharpie and a whiteboard.) “No erase. Never”

DH: “[Erin] wants me to write words on the board?” (I wrote “First work 5 minutes, THEN 2 minutes toys” on the board).

E: (gives me a hug) “[Erin] will say sorry and do work for toys.”

Erin then proceeded to walk back to class silently, gave a personal apology to each teacher and student they had wronged, and asked a teacher to give them work so they could work for toys.

Importantly here, I did not give Erin any solutions. I did not tell them what to do, how to do it, and I certainly did not tell Erin to apologize to the peers and teachers that had been harmed during the incident in class. Erin had a solution in their mind already, but I was the only one willing to ask what they wanted and wait until they were able to formulate an answer I could act upon.  The moment I helped Erin achieve their solution, they ran with it and did not require further adult help.

Student 2

I will call this student Bryan. Bryan had a substitute teacher in their class. That being the case, Bryan ran out of class three times and refused to come in from recess. I was not involved in these incidents. I came in later.

The incident I dealt with was when Bryan ran out of music class. One of my students from last year found this student running down the hall and engaged them in a game. He then yelled down the hall to get my attention.

When I got there I let my old student go back to class. I sat down on a bench and looked at Bryan who was 10 feet away from me hiding behind a pillar.

DH: “[Bryan], can you come over here on the bench and have a chat with me?”

B: “F*ck no, you will grab me”

DH: “What if I sit on my hands?”

B: “Prove it”

DH: “Okay” (I made a show of standing up and putting my hands entirely under my legs and sat down)

B: “I am coming out!” (he walked VERY slowly until he was just out of arm’s reach of me) “What do you want”

DH: “I want to help you get back to class. Running out is unsafe and I cannot let that happen” (I don’t lie to kids, they see right through me. So I level with them, it has worked thus far).

B: “What”

DH: “I want [Bryan] to be safe and happy so he can go back to class. What does [Bryan] need, what does he want?”

B: “[Bryan] wants to be on his bed in his room playing Roblox on his laptop.”

DH: “Wait, what? This is about home?”

B: “Yes. Dad said I was naughty boy. He closed my laptop. He locked it in cupboard up too high for me”

DH: “So, dad said [Bryan] was naughty and took away the laptop so no Roblox”

B: “Yes. Mad. Angry.”

DH: “What does [Bryan] need to be able to go to class”

B: “Laptop”

DH: “Not an option”

B: “How can get Roblox back on laptop?”

DH: “Can you ask your dad how to earn it back? If he took it, then he thought you did something bad, maybe being good will help you get it back”

B: “Ask dad? Why? Dad closed laptop. Took roblox. Dad hates [Bryan]”

DH: “Dads do things that make them look like they are mean and hate kids, but it is because they love us and want to help us do good things. They take things so we learn to stop being naughty”

B:  “No hate?”

DH: “Nope”

B: “Good at school help laptop?”

DH: “Couldn’t hurt”

B: “OK. Hate class. Want games.”

DH: “I get that. But if you do not go to class can the teacher tell dad [Bryan] was good at school?”

B: “I go to class. Now. Hurry”

I then followed as Bryan slowly walked to class. He asked a number of questions about why parents are “assholes” and why they don’t understand his needs. I corrected the language since now we were not in problem solving mode and it was a teaching moment to teach expected vs. unexpected language in school.

He went to class and got his good report.

Why did it work

The standard adult tells student what to do model is less useful. It is because of this there are students that will punch their peers and say, “sorry” and assume all is well. They also develop a dependency on adults to solve their problems. They become powerless. They have no accountability. They have permission to misbehave so long as it is a new way of misbehaving. It is a vicious cycle I have seen over and over.

That was not what happened today.

I think today was illustrative because I worked with two students that have relatively low verbal language skills and underdeveloped coping skills. Both students were able to communicate in their own way the solution to their problem and engage with the solution. I did not spoon feed them. I just used a modified Rogerian psychology trick of restating what they just said as a question to keep them communicating. They did the work. They got their own needs met. They were empowered. They learned. They were accountable for their own solutions.

In short, by helping autistic students communicate to get their own needs met, they grew. They grew as students. They grew in character. They grew up a little. They grew as people. And that is my goal as a special educator. To build character and prepare autistic kids for the real world. Today I feel I helped, if only a little bit.




How do we deal with grades when mainstreaming students?

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet

I have had a few thoughts this last week. I had another student “graduate” out of special education! What this means is that I can find no evidence for this student needing special education services at all. This is astounding given they have been in special education classes for behavior their entire educational life.

The first thing that got me thinking was this student approached me in the hall and pulled me aside.

Student: “Dr. H., can I talk to you for a second? I think I am ready to go over to [the general education class this student had been attending 90% of the time] all day now. I am tired of being talked down to and I have good friends in [that class]. I saw you moved [another student that worked themselves out of special education] over there and I want to now, please.”
Me: “Okay, [Student], go talk to your parents and have them call me and we can make it happen.”
Student: “Okay, you can count on me!”
We went our separate ways for the day. I was planning to transition this student over within the week anyway, so I thought no further of our conversation.

That was, until I got a phone call. The student did talk to his parents and demanded they call me as soon as they could. He even told them that the phone number they had was my cellular phone number so they could reach me at any time, unless I was in the bathroom or something (I would have paid anything to see the look on his mother’s face when he shared that little nugget of info to her).

It warms my heart to see a student that has spent their life in special education be hungry for a general education existence. This student worked doggedly to improve themselves, overcome any behavioral challenges they ever had, and rise to the occasion. I put him in a stressful situation (a classroom with 33 other kids) and told him I was there if he needed help. He told me, “Thanks Dr. H., I think it would be better if you do not come in and check on me in class. I do not want the other kids to think I am different.”

We met the day before yesterday and he is now a general education student with only an IEP so I can maintain transportation to our school, since we have been bussing him in all year. This is further amazing because, at the beginning of the year, there were a lot of people that told me this student would not be able to handle it. He certainly showed them.

An Interesting Conversation

When we met to speak with this student’s parents they were thrilled at the growth this student had made and ecstatic our school was willing to embrace him as a general education student. Normally I would focus on this for a blog post, but they said something else that blew my mind. The student’s parents mentioned that the student was crushed by the fact he was getting B’s in the general education class. He was used to getting A’s and he felt like he was stupid or something or was somehow unable to do the work.

Wow. Just wow. I had not considered that this student had academically been at the top of their class for so long that they were accustomed to receiving nothing but A’s on their report card-and that had somewhat defined themselves as an “A student”.

I ensured them that all this meant was that the student went from the material they felt was beneath them to truly challenging material. They should be proud of their B’s because that meant that they were getting 85-90% of the grade level work correct, having never had previous access to grade level material. This is spectacular (or as I tend to put it, Spec-Freaking-Tacular).

What this Conversation taught Me

This student felt like he was failing because he was getting B’s. He thought we were all somehow disappointed in him because he was not perfect A’s. Sadly, and here is the truth, we had given him no reason to not believe that. He was used to getting As and being told he was smart because he got As. Not that he was smart because he worked so hard. We praised the results, not the effort to obtain them.

A quick corollary to this is we often have students love coming to our special education classrooms (especially Resource) because they feel successful. We need to ask ourselves if that is because they score higher marks on the work we give them or if it is because they feel their hard work is better rewarded in the special education classroom.

In talking with my mother over the years I have heard some stories about parents proud of their children in special education that go to an out class and get Cs and even Ds. Those kids did it. They went out and Did. Not. Fail.

I think this is a very healthy approach. We should be proud at our student’s effort, not their grades, per se. We should reward accomplishment, no doubt, but we should reward hard work infinitely more.

What this conversation taught me is that we need to explicitly have conversations about grades, work, and expectations with our students before we alter placements or put them in mainstreaming/inclusion/out classes/etc. They need to know that we do not expect immediate As out of them. We expect them to be challenged. We expect to have to help them. But we expect them to do nothing less than their best.

Are there Solutions?

I think in the short term there are really no solutions to having students potentially feel they are failing if their grades drop when we put them in harder classes. That said, I have a few thoughts:

  • The most radical is we throw out grades all together. We simply give all the students that do the work full credit for turning it in and we move on with life from there. This sounds good, but it can be impractical unless students buy in. The system can be gamed by lazy students to not learn. As much as I like the idea of no grades, I do not know how this one would work. I know some teachers are having success with it, and I hope they can refine it to be more generalizable for broad adoption.
  • A slightly less radical version is to switch the focus from traditional letter grades to specific academic skills or standards. This is facilitated by the presence of the CCSS (Or UCSS in Utah) to provide the different standards we can specifically assess. I do not know of a non test-based method for analyzing these standards. But this still has the benefit of giving a spreadsheet of skills with strengths and weaknesses identified rather than a simple letter to represent how the student is doing. This has the benefit of allowing us as teachers to focus on student strengths rather than nag on weaknesses.
  • My favored system is a growth model. The math is a bit harder to get one’s head around than a simple letter grade, but we have computers to do the math. We can give a pre-assessment to the students that covers what the student needs to know in a given time. We then, rather than give a giant test, give a bunch of little tests called Common Formative Assessments (CFA) that are shared across all classes at a grade level. The results from the CFA are them compared to the protest and growth is computed. If 3-5 CFA are given in a term, one can calculate a growth trajectory. These trajectories can be used to guide instruction, separate students into groups, as well as provide evidence that the student is making progress. That progress can be shared with parents in lieu of grades.

Regardless the methods used, we need to guarantee the following: For our student’s coming from special education into the general education classroom, we need to provide highly specific feedback about their performance. This means if we use a growth model with CFAs, we need to work individually or as a group with the student to collaboratively and creatively apply knowledge so the students get direct, specific, and meaningful feedback. They key to student success is that they know where their understanding is strong or where it is limited. Then we work with the student to help them address their weaknesses and build upon their strengths.

The status quo, students looking at grades and bemoaning. Poor marks suggests we are failing at giving other methods to these students by which to measure their understanding of academic progress.


All that said, I think the most important thing we can do for these students is to talk to them beforehand so they are prepared for the change in expectations. It is the least we can do to help mitigate any depression or emotional disturbances that student feel when overwhelmed by new situations and challenges.