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Parent Involvement

Students With Autism Are 'Different, Not Less,' and Other Lessons From Temple Grandin

Steven was my oversized and freckled first-grade classmate. That basement classroom was bulging with students, with rows of tiny desks brimming with books and a teacher who liked order. We were to be quiet, sit there and work. Sometimes, Steven couldn’t take it. He would start pounding the desks so hard that the floor seemed to shake. The teacher’s lips would press together as she banished Steven to the cloak room. And then, for what seemed like hours, Steven would knock on the walls. Until, eventually, there was nothing. "Had he gone to sleep among the coats and rain boots?" I wondered. "Had someone come to rescue him?" I never knew. Worse, I never saw Steven engage in important and meaningful work in school. Fifty years later, I thought of him when I heard Dr. Temple Grandin talk about autism and neurodiversity at an Exceptional Children Conference. “What would happen to Thomas Edison today if he were labeled a hyperactive, high school dropout,” she asked, and “What about Albert Einstein’s speech delays?”

People with Autism Are 'Different, Not Less'

We all leaned forward as Dr. Grandin explained what it felt like to be autistic, about the challenges we teachers must face and the gifts that diverse minds can offer. I got a lump in my throat thinking about Steven’s unheard cry for help. In her early years, Temple Grandin was a non-verbal child. Her mother advocated for her tirelessly, designing a program of learning that helped her overcome her challenges and use her gifts. Along the way, however, young Temple was incessantly bullied, was called “Tape Recorder” and was dismissed as “weird.” Loud sounds and unpredictable situations would set her off screaming until she learned how to soothe herself. Nevertheless, her mother made sure the world knew that she was “different, not less.” Eventually, her enhanced visual abilities and superior math skills helped Dr. Grandin design humane systems for cattle handling. Nowadays, she writes and tours the country, helping thousands of children and families to better understand autism and how to work with exceptional children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 59 children are somewhere on the autism spectrum. This means that growing numbers of families and teachers are trying to figure out how to do right by them. Here are five important recommendations from Temple Grandin:
  1. Early intervention. We have to figure out what is happening in a child as soon as possible and make a plan. Early intervention—even with children as young as 2—changes outcomes.
  2. Manners. Manners are important and will help our students gain access to social opportunities and jobs. Skills like turn taking, greeting others with a good handshake and cordial exchanges are vital preparation for life in communities.
  3. Get it done! Easy solutions are sometimes the best—cut out the bureaucracy! If a child is having trouble with Algebra, give them Geometry—get a book and let him learn it. Find cheap, easy approaches and see what happens.
  4. Jobs are good to have. Young children can do chores and then expand into other helping jobs in the community. Such opportunities improve social skills that are great for life and careers.
  5. Talents. Develop students’ talents and expand on them—if a child only likes to draw horses, let her, but then expand to stables, bales of hay, other associated things. Start with what she or he likes and move from there.
I thought hard about Dr. Grandin’s advice and wondered what our first-grade classroom would have been like if Steven had been able to find something he loved to do in school. What if he had been offered a Genius Hour project or a book on his favorite topic? Perhaps he liked sharks or baseball or Roman history and he could have been learning about those things instead of banging on the wall. Though I will never know if Steven eventually found his way, I know that our schools are filled with countless examples of complex and misunderstood learners. These children are desperately hoping that adults will understand the way their exceptional brains work so they can contribute, thrive and improve our world.
Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Gifted and Talented specialist in New Jersey and has been teaching for 38 years. She is also the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a member of both the Board of Directors of the National Education Association ...

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