Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Mask in My Teacher Toolkit

I try very hard to create a classroom that is welcoming of students natural ways of moving, of interacting with the world, and of expressing themselves. In the adult autistic community, we talk a lot about masking, and the effects of it on self-esteem. And then I watch my neurotypical colleagues, completely unaware of what they’re doing, expect those masking behaviors. And I watch myself use them all the time as well. And in makes me wonder, am I doing a disservice to my students by not teaching those skills?

Masking is a skill. The more skills you have, the more opportunities are available to you. But what if our students grew up knowing, not just that masking exists, but that it is a choice? The social skills curriculums currently out there teach “this is what you have to do” but how different would the educational experience of the next generation of autistic children be if we taught it as “this is what the NT population does/expects.” What if our behavior expectations where “here is how to do it/fake it” and “here are reasons/times when you might want to.” 


I know full well that my ability to pass, and thus have control over disclosure, has given me opportunities I might not otherwise have gotten. (There’s a reason this blog is anonymous.) My students may never pass for NT due to other disabilities, but don’t I owe it to them to give them the skills to try if they want to? When I have struggled with social interactions, I’ve gotten instruction (I, personally, found Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking at Work and Ian Ford’s Field Guide to Earthings particularly useful.) Why shouldn’t they benefit from the same opportunities? As a special educator, isn’t that my job? To make the general education curriculum accessible to my students?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Hacking Classroom Culture: A Blueprint for My Implimentation

There’s a picture I took last spring of my students during their social skills group. They’re playing a matching game. The rules of the game are: chose a picture and ask your peer if he has it. Peer tells the first person he has the match and gives it to them. First person makes the match and puts it in the box. The students in the picture look absolutely pained, like this was the worst thing I could have possibly asked them to do.

It’s not the academic task. Matching was specifically chosen because it’s a mastered skill and the one they default to when they’re not sure what is being asked of them. No, what is paining my students, who are accustomed to doing their academic work 1:1 with a teacher, is that just answering the teacher they’re working with (who will provide prompting and reinforcement) isn’t enough to complete this activity. Interacting with a peer is a lot more work!

Enter Hacking Classroom Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray. I was struck by how their ideas would fit so sensibly into the outlines I already had in place. I loved how easily and sensibly they dovetailed with best practices in severe disabilities and prevocational training. Finally, someone had given me some tools to build a classroom community, instead of a class of students who happen to share the same room and teacher.

So what are we going to do?

Morning Meeting:
First off, I moved the basic calendar and schedule work out of morning group. The students all need 1:1 support to complete this task and can do it at different speeds and independence levels, so it makes more sense to make it part of their arrival/unpacking routine.
(You can view my trello board to see a full implementation of our morning meeting here: https://trello.com/b/383gGHvw)

One of the best practices in severe disabilities for eliciting attention and language is a mystery box. The idea is that you put an object in a box and the students have to use their senses/language to figure out what it is. Here, I’ve put a social language spin on the idea:
Place object of high interest to a specific student (or highly correlated with a specific person in the classroom/school) in a box.
Students can take turns making guesses about what it will be like based on sound/touch or opening the box and describing/identifying it (scaffold for skill level)
Once object is identified, students complete the activity it is used for (e.g. fill out attendance for secretary) and then identify/bring it to correct person (vocational delivery skill and social interaction skill integration)

An old tired idea you see in most special education classrooms is practicing greetings and personal information during morning meeting. Or the age-old variant of identifying who is at home/work/school. I’ve brought in some math instructional targets to keep it fresh (and keep us moving!) and brought back some good old-fashioned “show-and-tell” (with a new more social spin!):
Organize students/have students organize themselves using personal information (e.g. height, birthday month, age, etc) - visual models of data.
Each student has an opportunity to share a skill they are working on in class or something that happened at home with the rest of the class.
-Encourage community, not just what I did but who I did it with/who helped me do it and where I did it (what tools helped me be successful)
(Teachers can model too, but careful not to turn it into sharing on behalf of students!)
*Both teachers and students (probably mostly teachers at first) have the opportunity to point out things they saw others do - that they thought was cool or they might want to try themselves.* 

Social Skills Group:
The first idea I fell in love with when I read Angela and Ellen’s book was the idea of Empathy Mapping. I tweeted at the time, and I still think, that teaching Empathy Mapping in conjunction with Story Grammar Marker would be a powerful way to give students a structure and language to understand the social world around them. So I want to do exactly that. My students have been working on body parts and what they do. Our next step is to develop visual empathy maps. I want to use folders, with one side being the self, what I am seeing, hearing, saying, feeling, etc. The other side will have a pocket that can be a generic person (background) or you can place a picture or a specific person, and have the same options (what are they seeing, hearing, saying, feeling, etc.) The folder format will allow me to keep the visual supports for both sides in the center.

Ideas I’m Still Pondering:
* I’ve usually used the standard Story Grammar Marker imagery/materials when I teach that unit/skill. I’m wondering if it would make more sense to use the same imagery as the Empathy Maps for students to more clearly see the connection. Haven’t made a decision yet.
* I’d love to invite some of our non-classroom school people to join us for morning meeting (I originally was calling it morning cafe for this reason) but I’m not sure if that will help or hinder the social connection of the objects that are related to them (if they are not in their expected context.) Maybe try and see what happens? Most won’t be able to come except once in a while anyway!

Next Steps:

My copy of Teach Like Finland is supposed to arrive later today. Can’t wait to see what other ideas I find!

Friday, June 29, 2018

But in Purple....

For years now, I have described myself as a “part time AAC user” but beyond my preference for communicating by text and email whenever possible, I’ve never taken any steps to communicate multi-modally outside the home. (At home, I use a combination of gesture, sign, objects, facial expression, and cat sounds in addition to speech. My husband has become an able translator over the years!)

I have the same communication software as my students use downloaded on my phone and tablet. (Ostensibly, I got it for school.) I’ve tried using it, but it’s way too slow to ever be functional for me. Also, I find myself simplifying my language in order to use the vocabulary that is available instead of choosing the exact words and sentence structures I want, which slows me down further and can obfuscate my meaning. And so, I do use it for school, but I don’t use it for me.

This past week, I finally purchased a text-based AAC app. I hadn’t been able to justify the expense to myself. After all, I talk. A lot. And I wasn’t really sure if I would ever use it outside the house. So I found one that had almost all the features I wanted and didn’t cost as much as the ones with all the bell and whistles. The first thing I noticed about it? I liked it a lot better once it was purple. In fact, when I set up my second device, getting the color right was higher priority for me than getting my vocabulary set up. That’s particularly interesting because I’m usually not a visual person at all. I tend to ignore avatars, backgrounds, etc. (My NLD exacerbates this tendency.) Yet, if it made that much difference to me, who usually doesn’t care about such things, how much do our students care? Our students who we bombard with color choices at every corner “to provide language opportunities?” How often do we even pay attention to the cosmetic aspects of their device? We use vocabulary color coding, but what about background colors? Case colors? Fonts? There are a lot of ways to personalize a device beyond content that we often overlook. 


I hear a lot that “we have to motivate the student to use the device/to communicate (or they won’t.)” What difference might it make if the student was able to set up the device to be more visually pleasing (or interesting) to them? I haven’t used mine in the wild yet. I haven’t needed to. (It’s vacation week. I haven’t actually gone out much!) But I’m motivated to. I keep wanting to add vocabulary that might be useful. I haven’t had that before. I never would have thought that being purple would have made so much difference.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Emotions in the Autism Classroom

I teach a social skills curriculum with a focus on recognizing and labeling emotions in self and others. We do a lot of work in that class around matching emotions to their associated behaviors, both the classic NT expressions, and students personal expressions of those emotions. 

A number of years ago, I was teaching in a very bad situation involving bulling and emotional abuse. I was too naive and oblivious at the time to be aware of much of what was happening until the situation got really bad, which is a familiar refrain for anyone who is or loves someone with significant social communication challenges. I thought I was handling it. I thought I had someone in my classroom I could trust. I was very wrong on both counts.

The instructional data from the class I was teaching at the time was very clear: the students could match feelings to behaviors given pictures, but when using video, or during role-play, they were unable to even identify how someone was feeling. Even when the actions were labeled for them (the same actions as the pictures they had memorized) they were unable to connect it to the feelings.

Yet, toward the end of my experience there, when things got really bad, my students made it very clear that they were very aware (more aware than I, myself, was) of the emotional situation in the room. One student, every time both staff were in the room, came up to me asking “Sad? Cry?” Long before I knew what was going on, another student, who had no history of aggression, began attacking the staff member who was the primary source of the abuse.


The instructional data is clear, these students did not understand emotions and their connections to behavior. But the evidence of what they did proves the data to be wrong, or at least incomplete. They couldn’t show their understanding in an academic or assessment context, but they did one better. They demonstrated them in real-world context with the people that mattered to them and had influence over their lives. Isn’t that the whole point of teaching the academic skills in the first place?

Friday, March 30, 2018

Gender in the Autism Classroom

I teach middle school, so it’s probably unsurprising that I have had many students over the years who “like young pretty girls” and show it through their behavior. While I’m no longer a young teacher, and I’ve never dressed particularly effeminate, I’ve always looked younger than I am. And none of those students have ever had those issues with me. In general, I’ve always been able to work with the students who have sexual issues around females. Partly, this is because the behavior just doesn’t bother me, but partly its because they don’t generally exhibit those behaviors toward me. For whatever reason, I don’t trigger “pretty girl” to them.

You see, I present as female. A short, rather busty, female at that. I use she/her pronouns because they match my physical presentation and are really the only ones that make sense to me. But I’m agender. The whole concept of gender and gender distinctions really makes no sense to me. And, it seems, my students can tell.

One of my students this year is constantly labeling people (especially girls.) And for the first part of the year he kept asking me “girl?” (He wasn’t doing this to any of his other teachers.) And I kept saying “yes” because well, it seemed the simplest answer. But he kept asking. Finally, I changed my answer to “sometimes, on alternate Tuesdays when there is a blue moon.” And he hasn’t asked me since. He knew. I think all my kids have known. It’s why I’ve always been their exception to the gender rules around their sexual behavior. Because, somehow, they can tell my gender doesn’t follow those rules.


It’s just another of those things parents/teachers/professionals tend to assume our students “aren’t aware of.” My experience says they’re usually more aware than anyone else around.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

(Neuro)Divergent: The Classroom

It’s funny, I used to be called “the mean teacher” because I would insist on students doing everything they could independently, no matter how long it took, and not letting others “save” them. Because I insisted on teaching grade-level content to all my students, no matter their academic skill access level.

Now, I’ve changed schools. To the school that was closest aligned to my values that I could find in the state. And all of the sudden, I’ve developed a reputation as that teacher that is too permissive. You know the one, the one that lets her kids get away with everything and doesn’t actually teach? Yeah, that’s how I’m being perceived.

So what happened?

I could point to any number of things. I do have a really hard class this year. Certainly harder than I’ve had in a while. Groups don’t look very group-ish most of the time. And certainly, I’ve had more lessons fail than I had gotten used to. That’s only a problem when I’m okay with it and don’t learn from it. (And it’s the cause of my discomfort, not the school community perception.)

No, this reputation came about because I have found the hard edge of their tolerance for neurodiverisity. I knew it had to be there: schools are staffed by neurotypicals and even the respectful ones are limited by their perceptions of the world if they’re not listening to the voices of the neurodivergent community. And I noticed that from day one when I started at this school. It was far more respectful and understanding of the neurodivergent community than any place I had been before. But it was still an “us” and a “them” and the voices of the neurodivergent community were conspicuously missing from the conversation. (I left feedback saying as much on my evaluation. I doubt it made a difference.)

That’s what the perceived “permissiveness” is: I’m being too neurodiversity friendly. And, as often happens, it’s being perceived through neurotypical eyes as letting them get away with too much: because it makes them uncomfortable, because if they were me they would not let him do it. And so the “he needs to learn he can’t do that out in a job setting” argument gets invoked.

I literally got told that I’m really good at keeping kids calm and preventing them from getting upset so they can learn. And that that is a bad thing. Because they need to learn to handle being more uncomfortable. (Them being comfortable is making the staff around them uncomfortable.) We need to sacrifice their learning so they can accept more “appropriate boundaries.”

And to some degree, of course, they’re right. Because outside my neurodivergent-friendly classroom, the cold neurotypical world won’t accept them for who they are. And they will be forced to accept arbitrary social rules in the name of “appropriate boundaries” in order to be successful. And we all want them to be successful.

So, where do we go from here?

  • We use a more typical token or points system on are goal-directed-learning project. (Honestly, that was probably the next step in understanding how to reach our goal anyway. We needed to make it more concrete.)*

  • We set up clearer physical boundaries in the classroom. (I’ve already bought painters tape. Wish I could remember the name of the teacher I met on Twitter who gave me the idea a couple years ago! Thank you, Awesome Autism Teacher Who’s Name I Forget!)

  • I have some social skills curriculum to write. And some social stories. They need to come from me because they need to come from a neurodivergent perspective. (Unless someone else out there has already written one? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel!)

I’ve got my work cut out for me changing the perception of myself at my students at my new school. But I think it’s worth it. Because this school really does have the right idea and the right values. It’s why I chose to work there. 

Even when we have neurodiversity acceptance in our society I don’t think we’ll ever have neurodivergent-friendly classrooms the way we have neurotypical-friendly classrooms now. And that is what I was trying to create. And honestly, if I believe in inclusion, which I say I do, that shouldn’t be what I want. Our goal should be a neurodiveristy-friendly room. One that works for all of us, neurotypical and neurodivergent. They are right, I went too far to one side. It’s time to re-build the classroom that works for all of us, because that’s the classroom that is really going to prepare students for “the working world” after graduation.


*I know the research on reinforcers. I’ve read Punished by Rewards. I’ve read Mindset. But I work in a PBIS school that wants to increase its use of PBIS. That means using rewards. I have some ideas about how to make this work following the TTOG principles. I’d been trying it before everything fell apart in the last month or two and having some really awesome successes, even in the DTT context, that I hope to get to write up at some point.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Gift of Flexibility

The rules that make up our social structure can seem arbitrary when participation is not intuitive: Go here now but not later. Touch this but not that. Put this here but not there. When you look for an underlying logic in order to understand them, as many autistic children and adults do, it appears they change on a whim. “Go with the flow” requires recognizing and understanding, or at least being able to follow, the “flow” of society, which is based on social norms - the very skill that eludes so many people on the spectrum. It’s really no wonder so many cling to routine, structure, and sameness and get upset when it is violated. From that perspective, it’s actually surprising more folks on the spectrum don’t spend more time in “fight or flight” mode. It is a constant battle to figure out how to live in a world that often doesn't make very much sense.

Engaging with the norms and expectations of the school and classroom environment is particularly challenging for several of my students. In particular, they do not recognize the logic behind sitting and completing an academic task, moving to another area, and repeating the demand. Both sitting and moving are non-intuitive demands. Both have, historically, had intensive intervention aimed at compliance with these demands. 

They often demonstrate their lack of understanding by removing themselves from the demand to engage in preferred activities which are both highly interesting to the student and engage the teacher in an interaction, thereby drawing both of them away from the interaction they do not understand the logic behind. What concerned me was students who were getting bigger and older (I teach middle school) and more aggressive. And we were the cause. (Of the aggression, teenage boys are going to grow like weeds whether we want them to or not.)

I met with the team and we got programs put in place to get everyone’s hands off the students unless there was a real immediate safety risk (e.g. about to be hit by a car!)

We got lots of alternative seating in place. More than enough for every student in the room. Ball chairs. Bouncy chairs. Rocking chairs. We stopped telling students to sit and started asking them where they wanted to sit.

We got some pretty ridiculous answers at first. On the table? On the heater? On the floor?

We said okay. We did our academic work there.

Sometimes students didn’t want to sit. They stood or leaned.

We said okay. We did our academic work there too.

It wasn’t perfect. Kids were still on the move a lot. Transitions were not flawless. But what changed almost immediately? The day we made this change, the aggression that was starting to become a problem disappeared overnight. We’re getting just as much work done as we did when we were following the compliance-based program with one difference: everyone, kids and staff, are happier. We’ve been at this for a couple of weeks now and an unexpected thing has happened: the kids are starting to sit. They are sitting in chairs and without being asked. The logic is simple really:


Stop fighting the kids and they’ll stop fighting you. It’s the gift of flexibility.