The Denver Autism Wheel

Considering the physical and mental complexity of classroom activities

Posted on: February 11, 2011

I had never paused to parse daily classroom tasks until I was faced with the news that my autistic son was underperforming and noncompliant in the classroom. It was an ongoing struggle at his first school, to figure out how to meet the odd gaps in ability he struggled with. He had loads of ideas but had difficulty expressing them. He understood facial expressions but reacted unexpectedly to them. He knew his times table back and forth, but he flailed every timed test in the classroom (“flailing” a test is “failing” but with additional arm-waving caused by distress and helplessness).

It wasn’t until we got to a school with good Special Ed support that we realized the problem was in the complexity of regular classroom tasks. Chris *knows* his times tables and can recite them till the cows came home. But. When he has to write them down, he has a whole laundry list of disparate physical and mental tasks to perform, in addition to remembering the right answers. He has to grip the pencil tightly enough that it doesn’t fall out of his hand but not so tightly that his hand hurts by the end of the test. He has to read and interpret each problem accurately. He has to remember how to form and then draw the numbers that make up the right answer. He has to remember to move on to the next problem after he answers the current problem. All of these granular tasks are constraints on his overall test performance because they are not automatic. He has to keep each task in mind the whole time.

Lumping these separate tasks into what, for typical students, is a single activity produced horrible results on those tests, not to mention a lot of frustration and anxiety on his part. He hated timed tests. There was too much to remember and coordinate. He would either freeze, staring horrified at the clock (picture Dorothy watching the hourglass in the Witch of the West’s castle…) or would simply put his head on his desk and refuse to participate at all. His teachers, who expected that a writing or math exercise couldn’t possibly be *that* difficult, would explain to us at conferences that his noncompliance in class was causing him to fall behind his peers, and no matter the *consequences* of his failure to perform, they still couldn’t get results.

What we saw were the consequences. His lost recess time meant extra fidgets when he did homework. His extra work meant longer intervals of sadness and anxiety. The problem was that the two sides of this situation weren’t playing by the same rules. Neither the teacher nor Chris had a concrete notion of expectations. As a result, both were flying blind, and of course, it was frustrating.

His current school staff gets it right. They administer the same test, let’s continue to use math as the example, in two ways. First, they test for subject knowledge. They do this by reading him the problems and having him answer orally. In this way, he can demonstrate that he knows the material. Period. The second time, they test for reading comprehension and writing ability. They have him read the problems and write down the answers. They can observe a variety of trends in this test: his ability to manage his time and complete the work, understand and follow directions, maintain his pencil grip and write legibly…but all of these observations are separate from determining whether he knows the subject.

The real key to Chris’ success is in his teacher and staff’s ability to analyze a given classroom activity and determine what part of Chris’ knowledge they want to assess. They then translate the results of their analysis into a concrete set of expectations which they give him. He knows what they want from him. They know what they are measuring and what they will receive from him. It has made all sorts of difference in his ability to experience success, demonstrate his knowledge, and also work toward strengthening his deficits. His ability to manage his own time has improved markedly, as has his confidence in expressing himself in writing. That means he writes more, and he writes more easily: working to his deficits through his strengths.

Was it easy? I have no idea; I’m not a teacher or a special ed specialist. It took dialog with us as parents to understand what we saw and knew about Chris. It also took planning and thoughtful deliberation to implement the changes. I can tell you that it was the right solution for Chris, and it has helped him learn to like school and trust his teachers and support staff. It has also helped foster his academic curiosity and willingness to learn and participate. And that’s huge.

2 Responses to "Considering the physical and mental complexity of classroom activities"

I can see why 30 kids in a classroom would be overwhelming especially when the teacher did not understand either. The key to my daughter’s success has been educating her teachers about how things affect her and addressing needs as they come up. Fortunately, she is doing well without added support, but we pay for her to go to a private school to avoid the overcrowded classrooms and teachers who might not be as understanding.

We considered moving back to Colorado when she was newly diagnosed because the services are better, but my husband’s family is here and ultimately she is doing okay so uprooting the family wasn’t the best option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

@ autiemomkate:

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 12 other followers

Older posts


February 2011
« Jan   Mar »
%d bloggers like this: