Teaser Tuesday-Requirements for Being a “Parent” as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)

The Comprehensive Guide to Special Education Law by George A. Giuliani is a detailed yet accessible introduction to federal law as it applies to the rights of children with special needs. Written in a user-friendly question and answer format, the book covers all of the key areas of special education law including parental rights of participation, the legal right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and related services, and the complex issues of discipline and dispute resolutions.

Who is a “parent” as defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)?

Perhaps the most important element afforded under IDEIA is the right to parental participation at almost all stages of the special education process. To increase the odds that each child has a parent in the special education process, IDEIA does define the term “parent” but does so in a broad way. Under IDEIA, a “parent” means:

  1. A biological (natural) or adoptive parent of a child
  2. A foster parent, unless State law, regulations, or contractual obligations with a State or local entity prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent
  3. A guardian generally authorized to act as the child’s parent, or authorized to make educational decisions for the child (but not the State if the child is a ward of the State)
  4. An individual acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent (including a grandparent, stepparent, or other relative) with whom the child lives, or an individual who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare, or
  5. A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with 34 C.F.R. 300.519.

Download the Requirements for Being a “Parent” extract here.

Dr. George Giuliani works at Hofstra University, Long Island, where he is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, Health and Human Services and former Director of the graduate school program in Special Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at Hofstra University’s School of Law where he teaches the course, Special Education Law. Dr. Giuliani is the Executive Director of The National Association of Special Education Teachers, Executive Director of the American Academy of Special Education Professors, and President of the National Association of Parents with Children in Special Education. He has written many books on special education and he is a consultant for school districts and early childhood agencies. He resides in Melville, New York.

Teaser Tuesday-‘Oral Motor Fun’ Activity

Speak, Move, Play and Learn with Children on the Autism Spectrum: Activities to Boost Communication Skills, Sensory Integration and Coordination Using Simple Ideas from Speech and Language Pathology and Occupational Therapy by Lois Jean Brady, America X Gonzalez, Maciej Zawadzki and Corinda Presley is a practical resource brimming with ideas and guidance for using simple ideas from speech and language pathology and occupational therapy to boost communication, sensory integration, and coordination skills in children on the autism spectrum. Suitable for use in the classroom, at home, and in community settings, it is packed with easy-to-follow, goal-oriented activities and lesson plans.

The goal of each lesson is to obtain skill sets that will allow children to be active participants in their day, through fun and challenging activities. The activities promote development by structuring opportunities for engagement while facilitating language and skilled motor production, and are presented with suggested variations that can be used to work with a range of low-level functioning individuals and higher-level individuals functioning with greater independence.

Download the ‘Oral Motor Fun’ activity here.

This activity will help students to organize oral motor sensation and coordination, and to strengthen blowing, chewing, sucking,and diadochinetic skills. The ‘Oral Motor Fun’ activity also supports labeling, verb+ing, fine motor, and group pragmatics.


Which of Your Child’s Services are You Willing to Give Up?

Reprinted permission granted from The Autism Notebook Magazine

JKP author Vaughn Lauer, PhD shares expert insight on dealing with your IEP and securing services for your child.


Silly question? Perhaps.  Reflect on your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) along with the services that are in that IEP. Now, ask yourself which of those you would be willing to give up. Seriously, what kind of a question is that, right? You’re not willing to give up anything.  Okay, which would you give up for something else?  Farfetched questions? Not so much if you enter an IEP meeting thinking IEPs should be negotiated. For example, if you have ever thought of something similar to “If I don’t get adapted PE, I will go for more hours of speech therapy.” you are thinking in terms of negotiating away some of your child’s services. Why would you be willing to do that to your child? Look at how an IEP meeting might proceed.

Assuming Best Case Scenarios

Let’s assume that the IEP team—including you, of course—has agreed to your child’s present levels of academic and functional performance based on a review of all available and current information. The team has also identified and agreed that each of your child’s needs are to be addressed in the IEP. So where is the twist? It’s coming.

Assume that the goals are then written with near perfection.  That is, the team identified those behaviors (e.g., social or academic, motoric, etc.) to be affected through implementation of the IEP.  The goals included clearly stated conditions under which the behaviors are to be observed (e.g., when given a fifth grade text of 225 words, within 13 minutes, etc.). Lastly, the goals were stated in easy to understand measurable terms (e.g., with no more than 2 word errors, 70% of requests, with 80% accuracy, etc.). So what’s the big deal? Almost there.

The next steps are to determine the services to be provided, the time and frequency of each, and where they are to be delivered.  Thinking about your child’s present (and past) needs and rate of progress, you conclude your child requires more speech and language services than in the past. Staff, however, feel it is not necessary. You insist that services be increased, but staff say it isn’t possible to do.  You, nevertheless, counter that there has been limited progress made over the course of the year in the area of language development. A review of the data support your position and staff offers additional time, but, state a need to reduce the time of adapted PE.  You think, “I got the extra SLP time!” and accept the counter offer.

Realization Sets In

An hour after the meeting ends you realize—yes, here it is—you gave away a service previously determined to be necessary to meet one of your child’s goals.  You had negotiated away one of your child’s needs.  In case you’re thinking this does not happen, it does.  But, this can be circumvented, by throwing out the idea that IEP meetings are built on the premise that you and the school are meeting to negotiate the development of the IEP and services your child requires.

What Should Be Done?

What should be implemented is called the structured collaborative IEP process. This process poses six key questions to the team that will facilitate collaboration through group problem solving and lead to the development of the IEP>

The questions are:

  • What do we know? Where are we?
  • Where do we want to go? What is it we want to accomplish?
  • How will we get there? What do we need to get there?
  • How will we know that we are getting there?
  • How do we know when we have arrived?
  • How do we keep what we have?

By following the structure put in place by the IEP document itself, a plan can be devised that includes all that a child’s needs require. For example, the Present Levels of Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) should be written in such a way that the challenges and strengths of the child are clearly documented. Goals are then developed in line with those documented needs and subsequently, services given that will allow those goals to become a reality. Accommodations and supplementary aids no longer become such a challenge to obtain when the needs that support them are documented in the PLAAFP.

The practice of negotiating is unnecessary, as the evidence from which to base the decision (i.e., what services are to be provided, answering the question: How will we get there?) has already been established and agreed upon when the full IEP team identified your child’s needs (Answering the question What do we know?) and wrote goals (Answering the question: Where do we want to go?) addressing those needs.

What happens if the school insists on reducing services as a part of a “bargain?”

If you have an IEP that truly describes your child’s needs, and goals written to target those needs, you have become an advocate’s dream. Why? Because you have the documentation to support the services required, based on available data and measurable goals (How will we know we are getting there? and How do we know even we have arrived?) that require certain services in order to be fully implemented (How do we keep what we have?). The decision made by any third party reviewer would be to hold the school responsible for the provision of all services needed by your child. Exactly as it should be.

Reprint from The Autism Notebook Magazine, “Back to School” Aug/Sept 2013 issue. Link: http://virtualpublications.soloprinting.com/publication/?i=172140, www.AutismNotebook.com

Vaughn Lauer, PhD, is an educator with years of experience in the field of special education. He is the author of the forthcoming book,  When the School Says No…How to Get the Yes!: Securing Special Education Services for Your Child published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Podcast: Dr. Petra Kern on how music therapy in early childhood can help children with ASD’s

Earlier this year, the Music Therapy Research Blog interviewed Petra Kern on her work concerning early childhood music therapy with children on the autism spectrum. They published their interview as a podcast, which you can listen to here:

Music Therapy Research Blog interviews Dr. Petra Kern

Petra Kern is co-author with Marcia Humpal of the forthcoming JKP title, Early Childhood Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Petra is owner of Music Therapy Consulting, and  is recipient of the AMTA 2008 Research/Publications Award, editor of imagine, and author of numerous publications. She serves as the immediate Past President of the World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT), on various editorial boards, and is a frequent international speaker and guest University lecturer.

Combining ideas from SLT and OT to Speak, Move, Play and Learn with Children on the Autism Spectrum – An Interview with America Gonzalez and Corinda Presley

America X. Gonzalez is a Speech and Language Pathologist Assistant who works in several institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Corinda Presley is an Occupational Therapist at the Communication Works Center in Oakland, California.

In this interivew, America and Corinda explain how the activities in their new book, Speak, Move, Play and Learn with Children on the Autism Spectrum, – co-authored with Lois Jean Brady and Maciej Zawadzki – draw on ideas from both Speech and Language Pathology (SLP) and Occupational Therapy (OT); how this combined approach has benefited their own practices; and why the process of doing each activity can often be more important than the outcome.

Where did the idea to combine SLP and OT come from?

America: The idea was born out of a spirit of collaboration that came up when we noticed that our students were working on similar projects but with an OT or SLP spin. Another way we came together was when the speech team would make quesadillas with the students to work on sequencing, vocabulary and describing goals. And the OT would say, “Can I jump into your activity to practice cutting the quesadilla into triangles with my student?” And so we began to purposely create activities around both OT and SLP goals. We recently found out that the University of California – San Francisco has built therapy rooms for the explicit purpose of the collaboration between therapists. This is a wonderful step towards collaborative therapy.

Corinda: In all areas of healthcare and education, a multidisciplinary approach is the most effective way to meet the needs of the individual you are working with. Every field has their own unique perspective to bring to the table and it helps provide an overall picture of the individual and their needs. In the educational setting, working with professionals from varying backgrounds is a part of the daily routine, be they occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, orientation and mobility therapists, behavioral therapists, or adaptive physical education specialists. Through the years occupational therapists and speech therapists have discovered the value of combining their expertise to elicit the most out of a child. The occupational therapist brings a sensory-motor approach using meaningful activities such as crafts and arts, while the speech therapist brings the most important aspect everyone needs in any setting: functional communication.

For those with a background in SLP, how can incorporating methods traditionally associated with OT transformed your work?

America: Incorporating occupational therapy into a speech therapy session has transformed us into more well-rounded therapists. We can help the student reach their goals faster because they are working on a goal many more times per week. Traditionally, the therapist works with their student once or twice per week. With our activities they can work on their goals twice with their OT, twice with their SLP and a few more times at home. The difference between 2 times a week and 6+ times a week creates the surge in learning. The repetition helps students reach their goals faster and helps the lessons sink in.

Corinda: Functional communication is a huge part of our daily living. It is a means of survival to meet our basic human needs. Communication is a natural part of therapy, however as occupational therapists working in schools, we are specifically looking at students’ motor, sensory and daily living needs. Incorporating a communication system that matches the child’s level allows the therapist to work with the child in a more holistic way. Working with speech therapists has enhanced and enriched my therapy and I truly see great progress with children with challenging behaviors.

How should a teacher go about using the book’s activities in the classroom?

America: Teachers can easily do these activities because the materials needed can almost always be found around the classroom. Another great advantage of this book is that a teacher can customize the lesson to the appropriate learning style or level with our “Variations” section at the bottom of each activity. The entire classroom can do one activity regardless of there being many cognitive levels in the class. Everyone can participate and be a part of the fun.

Corinda: There are a lot of academic tasks that can be learned by students through a “hands-on” approach, as opposed to traditional classroom techniques. Children are, by nature, curious: they want to touch, smell, and manipulate “things.” A multisensory approach to learning creates greater potential for acquisition, retention, and generalization of new skills. We feel it is important to create alternative methods of acquiring knowledge with children who struggle with traditional methods. We hope that simple activities we included in this book will become a welcome addition to a repertoire of teaching strategies used by teachers, who are looking for stimulating ways to engage their children. Many of these activities can be altered or graded to meet varying cognitive levels. A variety of common classroom and household materials are used in the activities and most are interchangeable. The main focus for group activities is providing an opportunity for the children to engage in supported socialization and conversation. It allows opportunities for joint attention and to think about other people in the group with commenting on each other’s work, and sharing materials.

And what about parents at home?

America: Parents at home often struggle with getting their children of all ages and abilities play or interact together. With these activities, their children of differing abilities can work side by side on the same project by using the “Variations”, thus bringing the family together. Another benefit is that the book is easy to read and to follow which takes away the mystery of helping your own child succeed.

Corinda: We understand the daily struggle parents live with when raising a child with a disability. We strongly feel that building relationships with family members as well as peers is important and possible. Using creative stimulating activities as a bridge to forming these relationships also allows great opportunities for social language and developing pragmatics. This book also provides many activities that help encourage children to participate in daily activities, such as cooking, brushing their teeth, cleaning their rooms, and more. We would like to see our students be engaged and participating members of their families, and home is a great place to start, since it is a safe and familiar place.

Throughout the book you stress that the value of each activity is in the process, not the finished product. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

America: Many people put too much emphasis on having their projects look pretty and correct. But in reality if a student makes a macaroni self-portrait that has five legs instead of two, it’s okay because the extra legs were extra opportunities for that kid to work on their pincher grasp. The lesson is the important part. Learning the technique in a fun way is more important than having the project look polished.

Corinda: Nobody learns new skills without making mistakes and errors along the way. They are inevitable parts of learning. By focusing our attention on the process, rather than the finished product, we are trying to emphasize the importance of the small steps necessary to build competency in a new skill. We feel that gaining small skills that can be generalized to many areas is more beneficial than being able to complete one big project. Additionally, by avoiding the pressure associated with the perfect outcome, we are hoping to bring some joy and laughter to the activity itself. Spilling some flour is not the end of the world, but it is an opportunity to practice other skills, such as drawing shapes with a finger.

You’ve helped to transform the lives of many children using this approach, and in fact include some of your success stories in the book. Which for you was the most memorable, and why?

America: All our successes are memorable. Just when you think you have a huge success with one student then another one comes along and surpasses it. I’m sure that since we wrote the book we have had even more magical moments. This is why we do this. Every day is another opportunity for a great feat.

Watch the Book Trailer!


Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Breaking Bad Habits in Communication for the Helping Professions

By Maggie Kindred and Michael Kindred, authors of the new book 500 Tips for Communicating with the Public, which addresses the communication challenges that people in the helping professions face in the workplace, covering topics such as managing conflict, assertiveness, feelings, listening and boundaries. It also includes guidance on reflection, supervision, confidentiality and anti-discrimination.

We hope that the advice we provide in our new book, 500 Tips for Communicating with the Public, will help you to do your job more effectively – but it comes with a warning: some bad habits may have to be ditched!

How do people get into these bad habits? Life consists largely of ‘learned behaviour’. We learn everyday skills, like cooking, mainly by example. It is quite possible to get by doing all kinds of things which could be done better. Interestingly, many people decide to have lessons to supplement their cooking, recognizing that their level of competence is perhaps limited – but when when it comes to communication, it does not necessarily occur to us that we could do it better!

At the extreme end of the scale it is obvious that shouting at people, causes distress and does not get the desired result. But how many people do not realize that they are causing offence by:

  • standing too close to people?
  • writing letters and emails which SHOUT, because of the lettering and style they have used?
  • using nicknames and over-familiar modes of address?

Do we perhaps take for granted our ability to communicate effectively? How can we recognize our bad habits in communication and un-learn them?

Hopefully this is where our book comes in. Over the years experts in the helping professions gradually learned what helps and what does not in communication from their detailed observations and analysis of clients’ and patients’ reactions. This collective knowledge is generally thought to make up the tools of counselling and psychotherapy, but we believe that volunteers, carers, public servants and everyone in the helping professions can benefit enormously from learning adapted forms of counselling and communication skills.

This book contains advice for all who work with people on ‘the front line’. With its  jargon-free, practical advice, our book brings communication skill development within the reach of all, helping us to break the bad habits of a lifetime acquire some new, good ones!

Here’s a sneak peak at some of the many helpful tips in the book:

One-to-one communication is best in short bursts.
Take breaks when you or your client needs them. No session should be longer than an hour – even this is three times the 20-minute attention span commonly recommended by educationalists. (page 36)

Check whether your client prefers information in writing.
It’s preferable to provide information in writing to avoid it being forgotten or misinterpreted. (page 53)

Beware of communication running too smoothly.
Things rarely progress without conflict or negotiation…If there’s anger or disagreement under the surface, it needs to be brought up as it can sabotage your work. (page 117)

For 497 more great tips, read 500 Tips for Communicating with the Public!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Rising to New Heights of Communication and Learning for Children with Autism – An Interview with Carol Spears and Vicki Turner

Carol L. Spears and Dr. Vicki L. Turner are Speech Language Pathologists, Assistive Technologists, and Alternative/ Augmentative Communication Specialists.

Here, Carol and Vicki answer some questions about their new book, Rising to New Heights of Communication and Learning for Children with Autism: The Definitive Guide to Using Alternative-Augmentative Communication, Visual Strategies, and Learning Supports at Home and School.

Tell us about your experience working with children with autism?

[Carol:] I am a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) with 28 years of experience in the profession with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (Ohio, USA) and in private practice. I have experience in many areas of speech and language therapy, however, for the past 6 years, I have provided services exclusively to students with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. I am proficient in the use of many low-tech and high-tech alternative communication methods, as well as in the use of alternative methods of teaching to address specific unique needs of the students.

The frustration I felt when the use of standard interventions methods produced limited improvement fueled my desire to expand my knowledge base, and to meet the challenge of addressing the unique needs students with autism, severe learning disorders and significant communication disorders exhibit. Pairing the individualized and varied needs of the students with distinctive, innovative, and at times, atypical intervention methods, captured my interest and spearheaded my effort and desire to work with students with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.

[Vicki:] I have also spent most of my career as a school-based SLP, providing services to students with low incidence disabilities for a number of years. Beginning in the late 1980s I worked on several grant projects to provide adapted computer access to children with physical disabilities. My role evolved into using low- to high-assistive technology (AT) in the classroom and speech generating devices with this population of children with severe dysarthria, from cerebral palsy or other conditions resulting in nonverbal or unintelligible communication.

Becoming the first Assistive Technology-Alternative/Augmentative Communication SLP in our school district many years ago, it was a natural move for me to begin offering services to students with autism, who had difficulty communicating. They also benefitted from AAC and AT as communication and learning supports.

I’ve also managed a privately owned autism treatment center, the rehabilitation departments of skilled nursing facilities, and a vocational rehabilitation program for adults.

Carol and I are currently partners in a private practice that provides interventions for autism, PDD, AAC, visual strategies, and environmental design.

How did the book come about, and who did you write it for?

As consultants, we have encountered many interventionists and parents who are working hard and implementing many techniques to help the student yet, realizing little to no improvement in academics, socialization, communication, and behavior. Although their intent is genuine and commitment is strong, their understanding of evidence-based practices that have proven successful with students with autism and other pervasive disorders is often limited. Those working with these student are either unfamiliar, have limited knowledge, or possess inaccurate information about alternative strategies. We wrote the book as a user-friendly resource so anyone interested can learn alternative strategies that work. In writing the book, we recognized that many individuals presently in the trenches providing intervention services to the students often encounter the difficulty of time constraints. These time constraints prohibit the ability to engage in extensive research or decipher difficult reading materials. There are few user-friendly resources that offer comprehensive information about varied intervention strategies, such as, visual supports, PECS, speech generating devices, social stories, and structured environments under one cover. Consequently, in addition to writing the book so individuals may learn about alternative strategies, we wrote the book to offer a comprehensive resource that answers specific questions, offer examples, includes goals/objectives, in a consistent easy to use format.

The book is for interventionists, caregivers, families, and community members who look to educate and interact with individuals with autism or other pervasive developmental disorders. It is for anyone who desires to gain a better understanding of unique, nonstandard intervention methods that have been researched and found to be successful with the target population.

What makes it the “definitive guide”?

We certainly wanted to indicate how strongly we feel about the strategies we embrace, but also, the interventions described in Rising are definitive because they are grounded upon our decades of experience working with individuals with autism, AAC, PDDs, and other profound disorders, and just as significantly, because they are research-bound and evidence-based.

Carol and I are resolute in our application of specific interventions, because we’ve witnessed their success. For instance, in Rising and in our recent article for the JKP Blog, we discussed how physically structuring the environment increases the likelihood that a child’s appropriate behavior will increase and undesirable behaviors will lessen, if the setting is designed effectively. Within an organized environment, visual supports supply information, communicate expectations, and offer predictability, among other advantages.

We understand that all individuals are unique and each strategy is not suited for every child. But some themes are universal, like the need for consistency or to know the response to questions such as, “Where do I need to be; what do I need to do; how much is work is there to do; where do I put my finished work; and what comes next?”

In Part I of Rising, we provide comprehensive information on AAC, discussing speech generating devices, PECS, and symbolic language systems. Again, we recognize that the appropriate communication system must be selected, customized, modified, or created for the individual. Perhaps the most important tool in one’s toolkit is information. Rising provides that information…it’s the definitive resource for home and school!

In the book you talk about fear on the part of adults and teachers. Where does this fear come from, and how does it impact communication?

After speaking with a number of families and interventionists, we’ve come to recognize that learning of a diagnosis, especially one such as autism, is laden with strong emotions. Among those emotions, fear is often present, ranging from (and this could be fleeting to long-term) dread, anxiety, distress, concern, worry, panic, to horror. All that families once had in mind and in store for their children is now in flux. Questions replace hopes, and in creeps fear. Educators unfamiliar with autism or other PDDs might feel ill-equipped to meet the educational, social, or communication needs of this population.

People manage differently, but for those experiencing difficulty coping, we’ve provided introductory information on autism. We believe this allows families, educators and interventionists to rise above the fear factor and poke through the cloud that surrounds the diagnosis or label of autism, once equipped with sufficient knowledge. Next, we offer proven solutions. We devote three chapters of Rising to improving the communication abilities of children with autism or other PDDs. We describe the use of speech generating devices, PECS, and Symbolic Language Systems such as communication pages, boards, or binders. In Part II we share strategies to support learning, including the use of visual supports, social stories, and structuring the environment.

We compare our book to a hot air balloon. While fear might fill the balloon with hot air initially; our book, with its information, strategies, and resources guides the reader to rise above the fear to new heights for the child with autism or other PDDs.

What are some general DOs and DON’Ts when implementing the strategies in the book?


  • Consider the cognitive, physical, social needs when selecting a strategy.
  • Consider the individual’s interests, abilities, skills, and preferences.
  • Use team approach with commitment and input from all team members.
  • Plan for the use of the support, who will create it, know purpose, and expected outcome.
  • Expect improved social skills, communication, learning, and behaviors.
  • Determine type of representation (photos, symbols, objects, words).
  • Work in well organized, clearly defined areas.


  • Provide a strategy/device without training the individual and team members.
  • Give up if it doesn’t work immediately.
  • Use visual supports/work areas that are cluttered.
  • Be inconsistent with the use of the strategy/device.
  • Neglect to continuously collaborate and communicate with other members of the team especially families.
  • Neglect to reassess the success of the intervention continuously.

When do parents and teacher know when communication therapies are working?

Just as the abilities of students are often unique and sporadic, progress noted, is likewise often unpredictable and intermittent. A comparison of pre- and post-data collected about level of competency is the best measurement of “success”/progress. Therapy is working, therefore, if students indicate by their actions and behaviors that they have a better understanding of their environment and what is expected of them throughout the day. The students demonstrate they understand, where they need to be, what they need to do, how much to do, and what comes next. Some examples of an understanding of these routines include, but are not limited to the following observable behaviors:

  • There is a decrease in the number, and intensity of targeted or undesired behavior,
  • There is a decrease in instances of awkward, inappropriate, and disruptive interactions during typical social situations,
  • There is a decrease in inappropriate, disruptive behaviors during transitions,
  • There is an increase in the number of structured tasks the student is able to independently and accurately complete,
  • There is an increase in the student’s ability to follow rules and routines at home and school,
  • There is increased compliance to questions and requests,
  • There is an increase in the ability to relay simple requests.

In essence, success is not a single state of being, rather, a continuum of instances where students demonstrate a greater understanding of their surroundings and expectations by initiating and responding to routines, requests, and interactions with appropriate, low anxiety responses.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

How Teachers and TAs can help Students with Asperger Syndrome access the curriculum in inclusive classrooms

By Gill D. Ansell, author of Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide

Being a Teaching Assistant is not what it once was. Years ago we were volunteers who went in to help teachers, prepared the paints for the art session, sorted the aprons out so each child had one, and listened to the children read, amongst other things. Nowadays, it is a job that requires a greater knowledge of the National Curriculum, of child development and of children with special needs. Nowadays, TA’s are trained and qualified and paid for the role they do (although some not enough!).

It is understandable that some TA’s prefer to work with the ‘neuro-typical’ children, and some with the gifted and talented, but neither of these groups appealed to me because I always felt they were going to achieve anyway, without my help. However, the children I got most satisfaction and enjoyment from helping were those with Asperger Syndrome. The way they view the world is refreshing and logical, and easily understood – when we take the time to understand it. Yet, in order for them to access the National Curriculum they often need a translator.

Take this scenario for example; The teacher is stood at the front of the class, teaching the class of 30+ junior aged children about rivers. Most of the children are looking at the teacher. Two children are messing about, with a rubber and rolling it across the table to each other while the teacher isn’t looking. The child with AS is trying to listen but has lost interest after the first few sentences, partly due to the fact there are no visual clues to what she is talking about, partly due to the two children playing with the rubber and partly due to worrying about having to do PE that afternoon and whether or not they are going to get into trouble again for not getting changed quickly enough and being the last one picked to be in someone’s team as usually happens.

The teacher finishes talking about rivers and sets the children to their task. All the children, including the two playing with the rubber, get up and set about getting their books and atlases and returning to their seats. The child with AS remains seated. I ask the child ‘Do you know what you have to do?’ ‘Yes,’ comes the reply ‘I have to get my exercise book, some coloured pencils, an atlas and a question sheet and complete questions 1 to 3 before going to break.’ Now, to most people it would seem this child knows exactly what they have to do. They would be wrong. I then ask, ‘What does that mean?’ to which the reply comes: ‘I don’t know.’

Just because a child with AS is verbally clever does not mean that they understand everything that they say or hear. This child was able to repeat verbatim what they had heard, even though they had been distracted, yet had no idea how to break it down in order to make sense of it. That’s where a good TA or teacher steps in and breaks it down for them: ‘First go to your tray and get your grey geography book.’ Once they have done that, ‘Now, get a question sheet from the teacher’s desk and a pot of crayons, also on the teacher’s desk and come back to your seat.’ Once the child independently gets what they need, explain the first task to the child, and allow them to do it before explaining the next task.

If this scenario seems far-fetched or overly prescriptive, imagine this: I’m stood in front of you explaining all about my favourite fruit cake and how to make it and the ingredients and utensils you will need to complete this task, and then tell you to get on with making it before you can go on for your coffee break. I haven’t given you any visual clues, only verbal ones, but I’m expecting you to have taken all that information in and for you to complete the process of making this lovely fruit cake. How would that make you feel? Can you remember the order everything has to go in? Can you find out where all the utensils are kept? Can you remember all the ingredients and the order in which to mix them? Probably not. You may be able to remember some, but was it exactly as I had told you to do it? And if not, who is in the wrong? You for not completing my instructions to the letter, or me for not teaching you in a way you can learn?

Most often, children with AS are capable of doing the tasks when presented in a way they understand but unfortunately, some teachers and TA’s are still making the assumption that the child with AS understands because they have good language skills. Maybe some do, but we must take responsibility for checking their understanding, just to be sure. Translating in this way costs nothing.

If a teacher’s job is to teach, and a TA’s job is to assist that teaching, then they need to be able to teach and assist in a way the child understands, and bear in mind differentiation; Every Child Matters, their school’s mission statement; and that every child has a right to be different.

As someone once said, ‘if a child doesn’t learn the way you teach, teach the way the child learns’.

Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.

Read Gill’s article:  ‘How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)’ 

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)

By Gill D. Ansell, author of Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide.

Often, a child with Asperger Syndrome (AS) will seem to be coping at school because they are academically able, but when the child returns home they let their anxieties out in an often aggressive and disruptive way.

Having spent a lot of time talking with parents over the last year, and having worked in mainstream and specialist provisions for children with AS, I understand from both sides how difficult this problem can be to rectify – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be rectified because it most certainly can, and at no monetary expense to the school.

I firmly believe it can be alleviated by home and school working together. School staff should be listening to parents concerns about this problem and finding a way to help the child with AS at school, giving them a chance to talk to someone about how their anxieties affect them at school, not only in class but at transition times and break and lunchtimes too. The sensory factors that can affect a child with AS are often not recognised but these things can impact greatly on a child if they are not addressed with simple strategies. Imagine if you had to cope with the following all day, every day that you were at work as a teacher or TA and think about how you would feel when you got home:

* None of your peers wants to talk to you even though you’d like them to be friends.

* Some of your peers seem nice but as you don’t understand body language and facial expressions you’re not sure. Previous experience of bullying has made you cautious.

* Some people call you names discreetly in the corridor but if you tell someone in authority they think you’re over-reacting.

* People are touching you when you walk down the corridor when lessons change; sometimes it hurts and you don’t know if they are doing that deliberately or whether it’s because so many people are ion the same place at once. The same happens in assembly when you sit in the middle of a row of children. It confuses you.

* The lights in class seem very bright and give you a headache which makes it hard for you to concentrate.

* The noise in class is very loud and you can’t filter out the talking you should be listening to and the talking that you shouldn’t be listening to. This makes it difficult to understand what you have to do.

* People do a lot of talking and explaining of things but you have a problem with language and only ever hear the first part so are never quite sure if you’ve understood.

* In lessons you want to ask for help as you are not sure you’ve understood, but everyone else seems to understand and you don’t want to look stupid so you muddle through, hoping you’ll get it right.

* At breaks and lunchtimes you are on your own while everyone else seems to be having fun and chatting with friends – you want to join in but don’t know how because you know you are a bit different from everyone else and don’t understand how to interact or play the games they play. Previous experience has taught you that others think you are too rough or rude. You come to really loathe these unstructured and lonely times and you feel like you are useless.

* Everyone around you is talking about a party someone is having at the weekend which they all seem to be invited to. You haven’t been invited, again, and wonder what you ever did to be left out of everything all the time.

* At lunchtime you can’t bear the smells of certain foods and it makes you feel physically sick, but you’re made to sit there, even though people know you don’t like the noise, lighting, smells and have nobody to talk to.

If I had to endure that, day in day out, every time I went to work it would start to wear down my self esteem, and I think I would probably be fit to explode and rant at someone as soon as I got home each day. I wouldn’t want to explode at work – others might see that as a weakness so I would probably wait until I got home, where people accept me for who I am and where I feel safe.

School staff can help children with AS by understanding how the above affects not just the child but the whole family and by doing little things to help that child in school. Things like allowing a child time each day to offload their concerns to a staff member (this costs the school nothing); discreetly checking they have understood the work; giving them more visual cues (other children will also benefit from these so doing it for the whole class does not single the student with AS out); in assembly sitting the child with AS at the end of a row giving them more room and the chance to leave discreetly if required; limiting the class chatter whilst work is being done, and allowing those children who want to work quietly to perhaps work together at the same table; teaching friendship skills in citizenship or circle time and also discussing bullying and the impact it can have on someone’s life long term; allowing the child to take time-out if they become anxious (perhaps they need to just run around the playground for a few minutes to lower their anxieties before returning to class); but most importantly seeing the child as a child first, and as a child with AS second.

And finally, ask yourself this question; if this was your child, would you be happy with their anxieties building up each day to such an extent that they had to explode each time they got home? If your answer is yes, then you’re in the wrong job!

Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.

Read an interview with Gill D. Ansell about her book Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom – An Interview with former Teaching Assistant and JKP author, Gill D. Ansell

Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.

Here, she answers some questions about her new book, Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide.

Tell us about you, your background and your role in the day-to-day life of students with ASD in mainstream education.

I started working in pre-schools when my own children were young and got the most satisfaction working with the children with challenging behaviours. However, it wasn’t until I moved back to Hampshire (UK) and worked in another pre-school that I worked with a child on the autism spectrum who also exhibited challenging behaviours. Finding it an interesting condition, I visited a local school which was autism specific and, soon afterwards, started working there as a Special Support Assistant and within months transferred to a school which was Asperger Syndrome specific. I spent five years there and got a good understanding of the condition and how students with it can be affected before moving to a mainstream school working as a Teaching Assistant with children with special needs, including Asperger Syndrome (AS).

I wrote this book because I realised that over the years I had accumulated a lot of knowledge about working with students with AS and wanted to share what I had learned. It was also because I realised that, although there are many books out there with vast amounts of valuable information in about AS, there were limited books that were written in simple English which could be accessed and read quickly. I know that many teachers and TA’s do not have the time to read lengthy non-fiction books with technical jargon in – I get so frustrated when I start to read a book and need a dictionary next to me to translate as I go along. It doesn’t flow and I find it harder to digest what I’m reading. Therefore, I wanted to produce a book that could be read and understood easily and the strategies put into place as soon after reading it as possible. Another reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to show that with a few simple strategies a child with AS has a better chance of accessing mainstream education successfully.

How did your position as a Teaching Assistant enable you to find the most effective strategies for communicating with students with AS?

As a Teaching Assistant (TA) I felt able to work closely with the students with AS; to get to know them as a person; to get to see the world the way they see it and from there develop strategies to help individuals. Sometimes, I tried new strategies which in reality were just ideas I had which I thought could work with a particular individual – that’s why it is important to know the student as an individual.

I’m a firm believer that just because I know a student with AS it doesn’t mean that I know every student with AS. They are all individuals and deserve to be treated as such and what works with one student won’t necessarily work with another. I think what has helped me develop strategies has been that I have changed the schools where I have worked and, as well as doing in-house training, I made sure I went out and did external training and discovered new ideas and methods used by others which I could take back and use in the school I was at, at the time. Personal development is important to me and that’s why I felt it was important to work in different places and do external training – I would never have learnt all that I did if I had stayed in the same place.

Why is consistency in the classroom so important for students with ASD?

It’s important to work as a team, so the child understands that everyone is working together. If you’re not working as a team the child’s anxieties can rise and result in negative behaviours. These negative behaviours could be reduced with staff working together in the best interest of the child. That’s not to say you can’t be an individual because you can and you can also work independently but the fact is, you are still part of a bigger team. Any team not working together will be unlikely to achieve successful results and it will be their own doing. Working in a team means you may have to compromise sometimes, but if you’re all working together for the benefit for the child then it will be worth it. Also, when you’re working as part of a team you can share ideas and continue your own learning, developing ideas together.

Which of the strategies in the book are your favourite or most effective?

I have a couple of favourite strategies which I made up on the spur of the moment. The first one is the ‘Strategy Book’. A child I was working with kept using the ‘f’ word in the playground when he got upset with peers and he really didn’t know any other thing he could do instead. Well, that’s not entirely true – when I asked him what he could do instead he said ‘I could punch him instead!’

So, we found a new exercise book and I explained that we were going to teach him some new strategies which wouldn’t get him into trouble. I drew a cloud shape on a clean page and in the centre of it I wrote ‘Instead of swearing I could …’ then gave 3 things he could do instead. I talked him through the strategies and then we role played them. We would then read through the strategy book each morning, to reinforce his learning. Over several years we built up a bank of strategies for him to use for different problems. Eventually he was able to use the strategies without looking at the book each day.

Another favourite is the ‘Good Book’. Again, it was a spur of the moment idea and was so easy to implement. It would take me only a few minutes at the end of the day to write something positive in the book. If I’d had a particularly bad day with the student, I would ask another staff member if they had noticed something positive the student had done, and there was always something to write in the book. It is such a simple but useful tool, not only for the student but for parents and staff to look at as well.

What advice would you give to teachers and TAs who might be having trouble with a student they suspect is on the autism spectrum?

I’m no longer a TA and now work a lot with parents so I know that they often know their child is different long before the school do. I feel it’s important to work with the family, find out what strategies work at home and try to understand that many children with AS can manage to contain their anxieties at school for a number of reasons, but then when they get home they release these anxieties often in an aggressive and disruptive manner. It is important to understand that this is not down to bad parenting – the child needs to be understood at school and given opportunities to speak, in confidence, with staff about what they are anxious about. Many of these students are academically able and their needs are not always recognised by school staff. Transition times can be traumatic for many of these children, as can breaks and lunchtimes as they are unstructured times.

If staff suspect a child has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) observation is crucial, not just in lessons but in unstructured times. Learn about ASDs, limit language and check the student’s understanding. If staff can make a diary of behaviours which are giving them cause for concern it can help build a better picture of the child and this could involve speaking with other staff that work with the child, including the dinner staff, maintenance and playground staff views are important. The sooner these children’s needs and difficulties are recognised the sooner the strategies can be put in place and the more chance the child has of learning more positive behaviours before negative behaviours become entrenched. It can also be helpful to have written evidence to support the parent if they take their child for a diagnosis.

Read Gill’s article: ‘How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)’

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.