Sunday, June 2, 2019

Sexuality in the Special Education Classroom

CN: “sex ed” 

There is no room for sexuality in the special education classroom. It’s a difficult and controversial topic in general education that gets largely ignored in special education. Students with disabilities are either viewed as non-sexual (eternal children) or hyper-sexual (sexual deviants). Those who fall into the first category don’t get sex ed at all. The second group do get sex ed, but it’s “sex ed for special education.” Sex Ed for Special Education covers: public and private - what you can do where, circles of friendship - appropriate behaviors around people you know more/less well (aka not everyone is your best friend), and hygiene.

If you’re wondering where the actual “sex ed” is in that curriculum, that’s pretty much my point. Hygiene is as close as they come to “why my body is changing” and I’ve seen some pretty fascinating misconceptions about how the adult body works from my adult students as a result. But I only knew about it because I was supporting them in the residence in the evening when they were confused and overwhelmed and unable to express it. Most teachers don’t get that opportunity to interact with their students in that setting and most residential staff don’t have the time or training to provide the feedback to the educational staff. (And that’s assuming either side is willing to listen or do anything about it.)

Somebody did ask, at a recent conference I attended on teaching sexuality to students with significant needs, about teaching about sexuality, safe sex, or dating. The presenter dismissed this as a non-issue for this population, stating “if a student expressed an interest in any of these areas we would address it on a 1:1 basis, but it hasn’t come up.” Of course it hasn’t come up. Most of our students don’t know how to ask. It certainly isn’t default vocabulary in anyone’s communication device. Typical students have extreme difficulty talking about it and finding someone who they trust enough to talk to. We are expecting students for whom basic communication can still be a challenge, and who may only have a few people in their lives with whom fluent communication is even possible, to initiate these conversations?

But that won’t change. Because that’s not the point of Sex Ed for Special Education. The goal, like the goal of most special education curriculum, is to get those uncomfortable box 2 students back into box 1 where they make their typical educators feel more comfortable. Without changing that paradigm, sexuality will never be allowed to exist in the special education classroom.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Teaching While Autistic

To the outside world, I’ve had an incredibly successful 10 year career as a special education teacher. (You could argue 20 year career, if you count the time I spent working in residential services before getting my teaching certificate.) But under the surface lies a deeper struggle. A struggle not just with trying to reconcile my professional identity as a special education teacher with my personal identity as an autistic person, but to try to figure out how to survive as an autistic person in the incredibly ableist educational environment.

Part of my problem was, because I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 30, I had no experience requesting accommodations. And since most people still think “wheelchair” or maybe “blind person” when they hear “accommodations” my supervisors had no idea what to do either. (Even at schools for students with autism! Especially at schools for students with autism!)

And so my journey progressed from “how are you going to help yourself” to “We’ll help you” without any clear understanding on anybody’s part (mine included) as to what that “help” was going to look like, or exactly what I needed “help” with.

Should we be surprised that those positions didn’t work out?

So before I try again, it’s obvious there’s something I need to make clear to myself and to my prospective employers. I need to know, in concrete definable terms, exactly what I need from them in order to be successful in the position they are hiring me for. And if we cannot define clear, concrete supports that will make the position successful, either because what I would need to be successful is too abstract or because we are unclear on what would be required, then the position is not a good match for me and I shouldn’t apply.

I’m tired of hiding and trying to pretend there isn’t an issue here. I’m tired of supports that are really just attempts to recognize and fix things after the fact. I love what I do, and I’m not going to give up on my career. But it’s time to find a place where I can do it without pretending to be someone I’m not.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Coping Strategies

One of my personal projects recently has developing a system to track and analyze my energy regulation. I’ve been trying to figure out if I can predict and even out the highs and lows I’ve been having lately with more better self accommodation. The jury’s out on whether I’ve made any significant breakthrough (and that’s a different post) but as always it brought me back to the question of instruction.

I wrote about my emotion-based instructional curriculum a couple of years ago and what I’ve been doing hasn’t changed significantly in the intervening time. But thinking about it from this perspective, there’s an obvious piece missing. There’s an obvious ableism embedded in that curriculum that I didn’t even notice. Nothing there teaches students to recognize the coping strategies *that they are already using.* Nothing there teaches them to understand how they might need to modify their current coping strategies to function more effectively in a neurotypical society. (Which, like it or not, is the one we live in.) It assumed that the student didn’t have any coping strategy (not very likely for my older teen students!) and tried to teach them the ones that neurotypicals thought were a good idea. Yet we know that the  best teaching is building on skills *that are already there* not trying to build new skills without a foundation.

It seems so obvious when I say it like that, doesn’t it? Time to put it into practice!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Autistic Life Skills: Noise Blocking Headphones

Disclaimer: I receive no financial incentive to write this post. I don’t generally post product links because I assume you know how to use google. Sometimes I do, just to make my point clearer. I don’t get any compensation if you make a purchase using those links. The point of this post, as with all of this blog, is simply to share my experience in the hope that it will make education better for the students who come next.

Probably the most common association with autism and sensory challenges are the over-ear noise blocking headphones that many children and adults wear due to extreme sounds sensitivity. I’m not generally sounds sensitive (which is a very good thing since to say my classroom is loud would qualify in the runnings for “understatement of the year.”) However, I do get sound sensitive when I have a migraine or when my anxiety is very triggered. So, after a bit of research on the difference between noise cancelling and noise blocking headphones (I found this article particularly helpful) I decided to invest in a pair of Pro for Sho noise blocking headphones. (Primary positive attributes: under $20 price point and they came in purple!)

They worked exactly as advertised. My husband was able to watch Game of Thrones in the living room while I went about my life in the rest of the house without my being bothered by it in the least. (I may be the only person in the world, but I really don’t like Game of Thrones.) But they also had two other benefits that I didn’t expect, which are the point of this post.

The first was that wearing it seemed to have the effect of dampening all of my senses, not just my hearing. I assume that has to do with the way in which the sensory system is all interconnected. However, I was able to do several cleaning tasks, which are usually very draining due to the onslaught of tactile and olfactory input, and barely notice the effect.

The second, and this was the real surprise, is that I almost immediately started craving the input they gave. (I’m a very strong sensory seeker.) I wore them later in the evening when I was alone in the quiet house just because I liked the way they felt on my head and made the world sound.

I did not anticipate that this type of sensory support would have the same type of psychological benefits as stimming, but it does. I haven’t seen anyone writing or talking about that benefit before, and I think as parents and professional begin to understand the benefits on fidgeting and stimming on the neuro-atypical brain, we need to explain the other use of sensory interventions with that same model. I know it will be part of my explanatory arsenal going forward. (And those purple headphones are going to find a permanent home in my bag!)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Autistic Life Skills: Toothbrushing

Full Disclosure: I don’t get any money for telling you what products I use, like, or don’t like. My opinions are just that, my opinions. There are no product links on this page. I assume you know how to use google.

My goal, in this “Autistic Life Skills” series is simple. To, hopefully, provide a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of developing skills that incorporate sensory challenges, so that other teachers and parents (and other autistics who struggle with those same skills) might find some guidance to approach the teaching of these skills with less frustration on everyone’s part. Hopefully, a way to end the episodes of “wrestling a crocodile” (as the parent of one of my students describes their nightly toothbrushing routine.)

As a child, I was lucky that toothbrushing was never a battle my mother chose to pick. I thought I was very clever in the ways I hid the fact that I wouldn’t do it from her. I wasn’t; she just chose not to fight me about it. Through the luck of good genetics and floride in the water, I never got a cavity, but that luck certainly had nothing to do with my (lack of) toothbrushing.

I was in my 30s when I stopped getting nauseous and sometimes physically sick at the dentist, because I was able to advocate for myself to not get any flavored pastes (they make me sick) and to skip the floride treatment (the texture and taste - yes I can taste it!) makes me gag.

I was nearly 40 when I finally developed a tolerance for the electric toothbrushes that the dentist recommended. I still hate the Sonicare ones and won’t use them. But I worked my way up with the pulsar ones (the vibrating ones that look like manual toothbrushes) and now can use the Oral-B electric toothbrush (well, the CVS generic version!) They have a smaller brush head that means the vibrational input in my mouth is more localized, and the handle doesn’t vibrate as dramatically, so I get the input (and cleaning power) without my whole face, hand, and arm vibrating, which I never could stand. I’m still waiting for the dentist to tell me that my toothbrushing has gotten good enough that I can stop going every three months. Maybe next time?

Why do I tell that story? Because most of my students do not have the language to explain things as clearly as I just did. And yet, as verbal and generally self-aware as I am, look at how long it took for me to figure it out and find relief. I’m not saying that everyone with sensory challenges experiences dental hygiene the same way I did. I’m saying these are the places to start looking when a student struggles.

Especially when working with an older student, it’s important to recognize that there is likely a trauma component to the resistance to learning this skill. Do your research: what’s been tried in the past? How does the routine go at home? What are dental visits like? For many of our students, it’s a battle of wills with the parent at home, and either restraint or sedation at the dentist office. This is a breeding ground for trauma. You can’t start with sensory desensitization, or do sensory desensitization alone, and expect it to be effective. It might be effective in the classroom if they have a positive relationship with you, but it won’t transfer to the home environment. You have to work with the student and the parent to build trust around the routine and more positive associations.

What does that look like in practice?

We start by getting the student to hold the toothbrush.
Then we work on bringing to their face (any part accepted)
Slowly we work toward bringing to the lips.
Next is getting them to open their mouth.
Once they will hold it in their mouth for a count of 10 we can start putting it in each section of the mouth.
Then work toward top and bottom of each section.
Only after that do I introduce the “brushing” motion.

Some students can and will skip steps.
Some students do better starting with the vibration on.
The vibration scares some students away (like it did me.)
For some students we alternate: do each step without and then with vibration before moving on to the next step.
That’s going to depend on their sensory profile, and also where their sensory regulation is that day. (I know I’m more sensory defensive when I’m anxious or tired.)

Toothbrushing is a challenge, but it shouldn’t be a battle. Take on the challenge, work with your student, but know when to pick your battles and don’t make it a battle you choose to pick. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

When We Were Alone: Teaching our (Current) History with Residential Schools

The picture book study for this year’s Global Read Aloud was a pair of indigenous authors and illustrators. The use of language in the books was rich, and gave us ample opportunities to make connections to our own use of multiple communication strategies, as all of my students this year are multimodal AAC communicators. The themes fit beautifully into our social-emotional instruction, as we have been focusing on working together and what it means to be a community.

Then we reached the last book in the book study, “When We Were Alone” by Richard Anderson, illustrated by Julie Flett. The book makes great use of repetitive language that helps make the complex topic of indigenous residential schools more cognitively accessible. I have a student in my classroom who was previously placed at a residential school “far away from home” (as the story says) and who has a trauma history from that placement. I was initially a little apprehensive about reading this story with him. Would he understand it? Would he make the connection? From the first read-through, this student, who usually has difficulty sitting for lessons, sat with rapt attention for this story. His eyes were glued to every page as I read. It was clear the story had his interest. 

I did not draw, or ask him to draw, explicit connections to his own residential school experience. What we did was make explicit comparisons between the meaning behind the rules in the story “to make everyone the same” and the rules in our classroom “to be safe” “to get our work done” and “so everyone can participate.” My students’ active participation in these activities reinforced our classroom values more than any explicit teaching could have done.

I will say it explicitly here: My student’s former placement was a residential ABA program. While the stories are different, at far too many programs the strategies and intentions are the same as the story we read. ABA-based strategies, applied to appropriate skills, are not, by themselves, the problem. It’s the values and intentions that drive them that are deeply problematic and lead to student trauma. For teachers looking to broach this controversial topic with their class, this book may be a great place to start.

Monday, August 27, 2018

My Curriculum Resources

Disclaimer: I received no financial compensation for writing this post. I have no affiliation with any of the authors or publishers. I don’t even have an affiliate link with, so I won’t get any money if you buy anything through the links I didn’t put in this post. I’m just a teacher who wants to share what I’ve found works for me.

I’ve made somewhat of a name for myself for teaching content to students that other teachers had written off as “unreachable.” I frequently get asked is for advice on the best curriculum to use. (SPOILER ALERT: There isn’t one.) I’ve written before on the problems with pre-made curriculum (You Can’t Teach Self-Determination Out of a Box!) but since I know the daunting idea of having to create everything from scratch and individually for each student is what keeps many teachers away from providing curriculum access to students with complex needs, I wanted to expand on that notion and maybe make it feel a little less daunting and a little more accessible for teachers just starting down this path.

I don’t use any one curriculum per se, but do think that there is a lot to be said for using off the shelf curriculum as a starting point or building block. Timothy Walker makes that point very compellingly in Teach Like Finland (a very worthwhile read, but that’s a different post) and there are certain resources that I find I keep coming back to year after year as my curriculum building blocks despite the individual variability in my classroom student population.

To me, this one seems obvious, but I’m putting it here anyway. My first place to start is the state curriculum frameworks. ( I need them for assessment in ELA, Math, and Science, but I actually start with social studies, because that is the content that will drive my literature and give me an anchor for my science topics. My students are no where near meeting the standards as written, but MA provides what are called “access and entry points” for students who are not able to complete grade level work. I’ve written before about why I believe this grade level content access is so essential. (Assessing Our Place)

Math is always hard, especially as students get older. Traditional high school math feels light years away from students who are still struggling to master numbers and counting. Functional math like money and time can seem out of reach too. Yet music and movement are generally parts of all special education curriculum. If you look at them with an academic lens, what are they? Math.
My favorite resource is:
Math on the Move by Malke Rosenfeld (I’ve blogged about this book before!)
And one I’m just adding to my repertoire:
70 Play Activities for Better Thinking, Self-Regulation, Learning, and Behavior by Lynne Kenney, Psy.D.
I heard her speak a couple years ago about integrating music and play into learning and really liked what I heard. I was somewhat disappointed that most of the activities in this book are much more linguistic than exploratory, but I love her early Musical Thinking ideas, and how she builds in teaching students about how their brains work (that all important self-awareness part of self-advocacy we so often overlook!)

I actually really like the often over-looked phonics and high frequency word curriculum materials from Reading A-Z for teaching reading to AAC users. I’m not as much of a fan of their leveled readers for teaching reading, but I find they make great content textbooks. Level B, C, and D books are just about the right text level and text-to-picture ratio, and it saves me a lot of time creating my own content textbooks! (Special Ed Teacher Hack!) Plus, they often come with reading and vocabulary worksheets that I can adapt for unit vocabulary instruction. 

One of the first curriculum materials I was introduced to when I began my special education career over a decade ago was the Story Grammar Marker. I love the visual and tactile way it allows students to interact with the parts of a story. Literature and story has been one of the backbones of my instructional approach for as long as I’ve been teaching. For the research base for that instructional strategy, I point you at Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven.
New to my instructional repertoire this year is Hacking School Culture by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray (Published just this year, I blogged about it not long after it came out) It’s full of awesome teacher hacks, many of which I want to try and adapt for the classroom, but the one that really got my attention is the idea of empathy maps. The structure is very similar to that of Story Grammar Marker, and this year I’m looking forward to combining the two into a single classroom wide strategy for understanding what is going on around us. Which brings me to the next topic.

Social Emotional Learning:
Probably the best thing I took with me from a previous school that was a very poor fit for my teaching style was their social skills curriculum:
Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child: A Guide for Teaching Prosocial Skills (Third Edition) by Ellen McGinnis
I like the way it breaks down skills into discrete steps (although I often have to edit the steps, either to be less linguistic or to be more neuro-inclusive.) I also like the way it divides skills into different areas of focus. Last year my students focused on Listening from the “Classroom Survival Skills” section, Introducing Yourself and Playing a Game from the “Friendship-Making Skills” section, and Knowing and Expressing Your Feelings from the “Skills for Dealing with Feelings” section. This year, with a slightly different group we’ll focus on “Asking for Help (Classroom Survival Skills); Using Self-Control (Skill Alternatives to Aggression); Dealing with Boredom and Relaxing (Skills for Dealing with Stress).

Science/Social Studies:
I make extensive use of google and my local library for instructional materials and related literature to match the frameworks-aligned curriculum. I don’t keep as good track of the resources I use as I probably should. (Though I’ve gotten better at citing the literature, so I can keep using the same books for the same units.) There is one specific website, however, that bears mentioning here. That is the Perkins School For the Blind. Their website is a great repository of adapted lessons for students with visual impairments. I especially like using their science materials, as they do a great job making difficult concepts concrete and hands-on. Just because their lessons are modified doesn’t mean I don’t need to modify them, I do. (Most often, I need to supplement with before and after lessons to break down the concept further. Also, obviously, I need to create any related visual supports.) But they’re a great resource for teaching difficult concepts, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include them here.

Obviously, the curriculum materials listed here, even with modification and suplementation, isn’t enough to create a well-rounded instructional day. It doesn’t even touch on the ADL and vocational instruction that are key parts of our academic day. These are tools I have found useful to support me in creating individualized instruction. Another way to think of them is as useful maps for the terrain. They’re not a GPS. You still need to plot your own course from September to June.