Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Challenging the Myths of Autism - Acquiring Professional Knowledge for Practice

Part of our TLLP involves learning about the characteristics of students with autism. Although every child is unique, there are commonalities and we hope that acquiring knowledge about them will provide us with insight that will inform our practice.

I spent the day at a seminar entitled "Challenging the Myths of Autism", which was sponsored by the Geneva Centre for Autism and Kerry's Place Autism Services. Jonathan Alderson, Ed.M. presented the myths and how to navigate the maze of autism treatment.

This PD was an amazing experience for me. I learned a lot and was able to connect what was presented to the context of our project. Integrating technology into my classroom has been, and continues to be, a fantastic learning experience for my students and myself. However, I have been looking for opportunities to gain a more focused understanding about how to work with our special needs students, particularly our students with autism.

Having advanced my understanding of autism today makes me feel like I have established a decent foundation from which I hope to build a strong mental structure of knowledge that will be used to support our students and my colleagues. I would like to take a moment and share with you some of my learning and how I envision it being used to support our students as they use the touch technology to enhance their learning.

Jonathan Alderson presented the following myths of autism:

1. Autistic children lack affection
2. Rituals are dysfunctional and should be stopped
3. Autistic children lack intelligence
4. ABA/IBI is the only evidence-based treatment
5. There is a limited 5-year "window" for the development of autistic children
6. Socialization of autistic children happens best with peers

For each of the above mentioned myths, Jonathan provided us with evidence to challenge the myths. For a neophyte like myself, I was in awe of the information he presented. He had great personal stories and kept things interesting. It was a treat to listen to him speak.

My learning:

Autistic children can show affection, it is a matter of not irritating their sensitivities. What can I change about my approach with them that won't offend their sensitivities? We need to meet their needs like any other student to make things work. I think the technology can be used in a variety of ways that won't offend their sensitivities. We need to build a trust with them, to be curious, to tell them what we want, and share stories of affection. I look forward to seeing them smile when they use the touch technology.

Autistic students have rituals and they are not dysfunctional and shouldn't be stopped. There are many reasons why children with autism have rituals and repetitive behaviour (RRB's). It's important to consider biological & sensory causes (help them de-stimulate), stop judging them as bad, and try to join in or imitate. Knowing this, I think that I should be patient and understanding if the students we are working with feel the need to demonstrate RRB's when using the touch devices. It is part of who they are and I should respect their differences like I would any other student.

Autistic students don't lack intelligence. How are we measuring IQ? There are many intelligences, so why would we focus on one way to measure it. Do we do that with other students? The touch devices can be a tool to help students with autism demonstrate their intelligence, just like it is being used with the students in my class who are excited and engaged in their learning because of technology.

ABA/IBI are not the only evidence-based treatment for students with autism. Listening to Jonathan speak about navigating the maze of autism treatments was a breath of fresh air. He talked about the principles of multi-treatment designs and that we can learn from different approaches. As a teacher I am open and try different things to reach my students. Granted, I am not doing therapy, but I am a practitioner who has the option of using technology to teach my students and have them demonstrate their knowledge. Is it not a moral imperative that I do what I can to reach ALL my students?

There isn't a 5-year window for development in autistic children. There isn't any scientific evidence that shows that learning slows down after 5 years of age, science confirms that the brain remains 'plastic' throughout life, and we really shouldn't interpret 'early intervention' as intervention only works early! The technology is a tool, it might meet the needs of the student and it might not - no harm in trying it out as I would any other teaching tool.

Socialization of children with autism doesn't necessarily happen best with peers. The social skills that are evident in neurotypical children are most often 'missing' with kids that have autism. Autistic children have low eye contact, lack social motivation, imitation, understanding, and generalization. If you want autistic children to socialize with other children it would be more effective to teach them the above mentioned social skills. Examples of how this could be done are through 1:1 facilitated play dates and adult play and instruction. In the second phase of our project we will be inviting our autistic friends to visit our classroom. While they visit, I was hoping that they would sit with one of my "model" students - confident, compassionate, and capable with the technology. I am open to introducing the technology to the autistic students in a variety of ways - it doesn't have to happen the way we envisioned it. It should play out in a comfortable way for our visiting students.

We need to continue to challenge the myths. We need to be more accepting, curious, and take an active role in rewriting how to work with children who have autism. Soft eyes, open heart, and an inviting mind can take people places they have never been before. I am looking forward to the journey.


  1. Hello R. Chidiac-- (Jonathan Alderson writing here) Wow! What a great summary of the seminar you attended. I am so happy to learn that you found my seminar enjoyable and most importantly useful in your work with students. "Soft eyes, open heart, and an inviting [curious] mind" Yes! Yes!

  2. Great to hear from you Jonathan! Thanks for reading and commenting on my experience at your seminar. I hope you continue to check in and see what we are up to. Take care.