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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Teaching Those With Autism - Part 2

Note: This is the second installment in this series. The first article can be found at this location.

In my last posting I emphasized how much effort I put into immersing myself into my participant’s world. My teaching style is exhausting for instructors who are expecting some sort of quick fix or neat trick for helping others to learn. I find there is often too much attention paid to the goal or destination of the training and not enough consideration given to the journey to that goal. I learned to teach as a bus driver but also by living in many different parts of the world. I find it important to stress how much about teaching that I learned from people of other cultures.
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One of many learning experiences I can recall from my days driving the bus was an encounter with a policeman. At some time during a long day of driving it seems I made a right turn on red at an intersection where it was not permitted. A few moments later a police car signaled me to pull my bus over. I opened the door and the policeman climbed up the steps all ready to give me a citation. At that point he looked back at my passengers. His expression was unmistakable; his face registered that cruel shock that ignorant people display when they see the severely physically disabled. He quickly apologized to me and practically ran back to his police car without giving me a ticket.

This incident happened in the first few days of my driving experience. Over the years similar events happened when other people boarded the bus for various reasons. I learned several lessons from these moments.

First, I learned how easy it was to upset the equilibrium autistic individuals rely on to make it through each day. The very slightest change in the bus route, due to road construction or the need to pick up new passengers, registered sharply with many individuals. This effect rippled through the bus when the less cognizant individuals sensed a disturbance in their neighbors. I learned how important it was to begin explaining any route change from the moment I began picking up passengers. I repeated this route change and encouraged them to explain these changes to each other. It became evident that I had to learn to use their own special communication channels, between individuals, if I wanted to be sure a message circulated properly.

The second lesson I learned from the policeman’s reaction was exactly how sensitive autistic people are to the way other people react to their physical appearance. To the uneducated it may seem like they are completely out of touch with all reality. In truth, quite the opposite is true. They are hypersensitive to external stimuli and easily stirred by the reactions of others, particularly the reactions of strangers or ‘normal’ people. My passengers spoke to me and each other at length about the way that policeman had behaved. In their rambling, somewhat disconnected speech, they expressed deep sorrow that people acted so revoltingly to their appearance and behavior. After all, they have little or no control over their appearance and involuntary muscle contractions. “Why do people act like that, Tom?” one man asked me.

I tried to explain it to them essentially this way. I said many people do not know much about the world they live in. When they see different people, like people from other countries, they react in a bad way instead of a good way. It was that person’s actions that were wrong, it was not any fault of the people they were looking at. Of course I had to continue repeating this lesson for the remainder of that route to get the message across to even a few of the passengers.

At that time I figured my explanation was rather beyond their comprehension. Oddly enough when someone boarded the bus weeks later and again reacted like the policeman I heard these responses: “Not our fault. That lady was wrong. Not my fault.”

I also learned to carefully temper my emotional responses to avoid stirring everyone up. If another driver cut me off in traffic I remained calm. If someone on the bus threw a tantrum I attempted to calm them with soft words rather than shouting.

Note: This is the second installment in this series. The third article can be found at this location

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