Surviving and Thriving in ASD class teaching
July 28 2020
Niall Drea spoke to teachers who have made the move from mainstream primary to autism (ASD) class teaching. He discovered how a shift in mindset can help you and your students to thrive.
Surviving and Thriving in ASD class teaching
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) class teaching is an incredibly rewarding experience. But often teachers can find it extremely challenging and stressful if they enter it with a mainstream mindset. Here are some tips from experienced ASD teachers on how to change your mindset to make the most of your transition into the ASD classroom.
You must adapt to the culture of autism.
Many teachers are unknowingly ingrained in the culture of mainstream education. This creates a significant obstacle when they enter an ASD classroom. In the mainstream classroom, certain behaviours are expected from adults and children. We communicate in certain ways, we expect to learn certain things in certain ways. Methods and strategies that are effective in the mainstream class may not be as applicable when working with ASD students. Levels of social feedback are different, and students may not have the life skills that we would expect in the mainstream class.
For teachers transitioning from mainstream to ASD class teaching these things can have a destabilizing impact. The distinctive nature of ASD teaching can leave the teacher feeling very much outside of their comfort zone. The first step to becoming a great ASD class teacher is to stop viewing our role through the prism of mainstream education. Instead we must focus solely on the needs of the wonderful students in our care. Many teachers feel that this cultural adaptation was the most important factor in helping them settle into their new role.
The professional and emotional support that is provided by our colleagues plays an important role in our successful working lives. In mainstream class teaching, one simply needs to pop into the classroom next door to chat to a colleague. You will easily find someone who is experiencing similar challenges and stresses in their daily professional life. Teachers in ASD classes are managing situations that are quite different to those they have trained for.
There can be higher levels of challenging behaviour and academic progress can be slower. Pupils may not interact and communicate in the way you expect. For this reason, many teachers experience lots of self-doubt in the ASD class initially. Often, they don’t have access to the support that they need and would take for granted as mainstream teachers. This is due to their lack of experience of and expertise in the culture of autism in many schools.
Having a good relationship with colleagues working in the ASD classes really helps to reduce feelings of isolation. It puts experiences in context. Teachers discover that even though their daily classroom experience may feel alien to them, their experience shared by thousands of ASD teachers across the world. Sitting and talking to people who were having similar experiences in the classroom is a huge comfort for many ASD class teachers. Where this is not available for teachers within their own workplace, they should seek out groups outside school or online.
Changes in team dynamic
Most teachers moving into ASD classes find that their relationship with other adults in the classroom is also very different. In the mainstream classes, the adult’s roles tend to be very clear. The teacher is solely responsible for implementing the curriculum in their class. However, in the ASD class the lines can be blurred. Much of the work is done on a 1-1 basis, children have individual programs and (often unorthodox) interventions in place. There may be several other adults in the classroom, all of whom need to buy in to the teacher’s program. Suddenly, a teacher finds that they need to “sell” their vision for how the class should be run.
This “manager” element of ASD class teaching is one that many teachers struggle with initially. Building strong relationships with the other adults in the class is vital. These relationships are key to ensuring consistency in the classroom and pupil progress.
Focus on individual, not curriculum
A huge difficulty for teachers is that they do not have a clear vision of what success looks like. Many teachers find it hard to break away from mainstream ideas of success. It is important to understand what progress or success looks like in their ASD class. We know that our role is to prepare our students for the future. Often in the ASD class, that means a focus on essential life skills.
However, constant focus on curricular progress in schools means that many teachers experience high levels of guilt when their students do not meet age-related targets. While academic progress is undoubtedly important, sometimes the things that we do as ASD class teachers are far more fundamental. Supporting student to eat a vegetable, unzip and hang up their coat independently, or play a turn-taking game with another student for the first time can be a far more relevant target. A teacher who achieves this should not be losing sleep over a missed goal in numeracy.
The change in mindset is fundamental to making the transition from mainstream to ASD teaching. Remember:
1. What works in mainstream doesn’t necessarily work in ASD teaching
2. Your relationship with your co-workers will be different and even more important
3. Understand that success is measured through individual progress, rather than keeping up with their neurotypical peers in academic subjects.
Keep these points in mind and you will be a confident and effective teacher in the ASD classroom.
About Niall Drea
Niall Drea has 9 years of primary teaching experience across a range of cultures on three continents. He has completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and is currently completing a Masters in Special and Additional Learning Needs. He is currently working as an ASD class teacher and is passionate about ensuring that children with Autism have access to the best possible learning environment.
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