During the past school year I worked with a third grader diagnosed with autism as he returned to school after being discharged from a treatment center. Jake displayed many behaviors that did not work well in the classroom. These behaviors occurred predominantly during math class. Jake’s scores in math were 82 – 90 percent over the previous quarter. With these scores, it did not appear that he was struggling in math.
Just like people of all ages can learn, so is it that autistic people of all ages can learn. It is an utterly sad state of affairs that this even needs to be said, but unfortunately, it needs to be said. Too often I see autistic children being babysat rather than being taught at school. When I ask about academic curriculum being used, I am told, “Oh, he has autism” as if this is an answer to my question.
Autistic people experience the world differently than non-autistic people experience the world. One reasons for this difference is the autistic sensory system is quite different from the neuro-majority, which is considered the norm. In addition, the autistic thinking style has differences from the neuro-majority norm.
One way people learn is from consequences. For example, if you leave your car parked outside with the windows down and it rains, the natural consequence is that your car seats will get wet. Sometimes a person with authority over another engineers a consequence for certain behaviors as a way to decrease the frequency of unwanted behaviors. For example, a mother or a caregiver might decide that if hitting occurs at the park there will be no going to the park for the next two weeks. This sort of engineered consequence for unwanted behavior works for most people most of the time. It is why we use it to successfully teach our children to become responsible citizens – responsible for themselves, their behavior, their belongings and beyond. These kinds of consequences rarely work well for individuals with autism.
Accommodations are something provided by law to people with disabilities. It is easy for people to understand physical accommodations such as wheelchairs and curb cuts. It is much more difficult for people to understand accommodations when it involves sensory and processing differences such as those common to autistic people.