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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Teaching Those With Autism - Part 3

Note: This is the 3rd installment in this series. The first article can be found at Teaching Those With Autism

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I find it much easier to teach people, of any skill level, if I know their communication style, including all the intrinsic patterns and vocabulary. It is so important to completely immerse yourself in the daily lives of the people with whom you intend to communicate. This is not easy to accomplish but worth all the effort it takes.

One of the problems I noticed about autistic adults, and continue to notice with adults from many cultures and backgrounds, is their resistance to communicate with anyone that does experience the world from their point of view. There is a tremendous sensitivity to feelings of pity, alienation, and exasperation that most 'normal' adults demonstrate in challenging teaching situations. In other words, if they sense you pity them, if they sense you are not willing to open up completely and share your world with them, if they feel you already have your mind made up about the outcome of a particular session, they will not open up. This is true about many extremely intelligent people as well as autistic people. Both audiences seem to feel if you are not 100% committed to their cause then why should they bother working with you?

I break through this barrier with by exhibiting extreme patience along with sincerely making a long term commitment to making my training a success. I go to great lengths to learn little things like the speaking rhythm, cadence, and volume they prefer to use when communicating. I study which days of the week, times of day, and places where they like to communicate with others. I make every effort to use the same vocabulary, including any jargon or even mispronunciations they might happen to use. I may or may not correct some small mistakes at some future time.

In the case of autistic adults and many foreign audiences, I make it a point not to look at them except directly into the eyes, if possible. I try never to allow my eyes to be distracted by different facial features, body movements, or other physical differences. I had to develop this style because I was in a unique position. I was driving the bus and could not look directly at them, I had to keep my eyes on the road. We could only make eye contact using a narrow passenger mirror, although many of them preferred that I did not look at them at all when we communicated. I learned to work entirely in a verbal teaching world, without visuals, if necessary. I do demonstrate some things, but do not put people on the spot by unnecessarily drawing attention to them. In other words, I sometimes do the opposite of what traditional teachers are taught to do, not looking students in the eyes, not studying my audience, and not forcing lessons on students, some of whom may be unwilling to learn at a particular time or place.

I use a tape recorder extensively when teaching foreign audiences. I learned to do this on my bus with my wonderful passengers way back in the 80s. With the autistic adults I learned that certain music appealed to some or even all of them. While classical music appealed to them it tended to make them less communicative. I had recordings of the early black blues musicians and other musicians that emulate this style. When I played these recordings, they really connected with the very emotional message in the singer's voice. Rev. Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, and Blind Lemon Jefferson seemed to strike a chord that opened up their 'doors of perception." Another musician, Jorma Kaukonen, sings these same songs in contemporary recordings that I found very useful. I used this music to draw them out of the distant world they inhabit. I occasionally make recordings with the same tape recorder, using those recordings to better understand each individual's speaking style, vocabulary, and topics of interest.

Repetition and sincerity are two very important teaching tools. I had to repeat things I said because of road noise and the fact that some passengers would just be making odd noises as they usually do. I actually used the blues music to quiet down the spontaneous noises that autistic adults often emit. I repeated messages I wanted to get across and rewarded them with particular songs they enjoyed. After some time I even taught them the names of songs and musicians. Of course a few of them learned these right away while others needed many repetitions, often over many days. It took weeks to teach the most severely autistic certain things, like the use of the wheelchair lift. But I did it and let them enjoy their success in front of people that were important to them, including their peers and parents. It is something to see an autistic person learn something new and smile and laugh at having done so.

I use a great deal of vocal variation, to overcome background noise and capture attention. Altering not just my volume, typically a little louder than many instructors are comfortable with, but varying tone and emotional content. I have also trained myself to use different accents, like British, Australian, East Indian, southern U.S., and even that of a French speaker of English. Many groups warm to this touch, especially when they might otherwise be losing interest or even falling asleep. I don't do it for long but I do it long enough to get those who want to learn back on board the lesson.

When they were quiet I engaged those that were receptive to communication. I would involve others that seemed to indicate an interest in the conversation. I never let on that we had to learn something new. Even though I considered their understanding of the wheelchair lift essential in the case of an accident I did not let this rush the learning. Most of the topics we learned about together, in question and answer format.

I shared appropriate details about my personal life with them to let them know I was really a friend, not just their bus driver. Sincerity is so vital to communication; people are very sensitive to this, though it might not be evident at first thought. I strive hard to know when people are upset or joyful and make sure to let them know that I know this and understand what they are going through. Since people can be pretty good at hiding emotions, I let them know when I was sad or happy.

With autistic adults, and scientists, it is very hard at first to read emotions, they have a knack for hiding them, but I gradually learned to identify various emotional states from the moment I come into contact with them. I take time to get started and often work with the emotional issue before I begin any other lessons. No adult instructor that I know of attempts this though teachers of young children often do.

I also left more time for them to 'digest' new ideas that I was teaching them. This 'time to digest' is an extremely important component of my teaching style to this very day. I find most instructors fail because they feel they have to rush lessons into a pre-set time frame. I relax when I teach and recognize that all adults learn at different paces.

One note I must end on is this: I never forget that I am always a student when I am teaching others. The stream of knowledge flows both ways, no matter how much more I may know about a topic than my audience. I consider the knowledge that flows back to me during teaching to be like diamonds or great secrets that I treasure and work very hard to understand myself. Effective teachers must also be students of their own lessons. Teaching never ceases to be rewarding if the instructor holds this notion to be true always.

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