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- Humanizing Your Reading Class: The Magic of Working with an Autistic Learner
Humanizing Your Reading Class: The Magic of Working with an Autistic Learner
Mega Wati has been teaching English for more than two decades in her home country, and teaching Indonesian in another country. She now belongs to a relatively-new-but-well-accredited English Language Education Department in Indonesia, where she found a new calling of teaching inclusive classes in higher institution.
This paper intends to share my experience in handling a reading class in an inclusive education setting with an autistic learner in it. Inspired by Friend & Bursuck’s INCLUDE analysis strategy for inclusive education (2014, 2015) that consists of Identify classroom demands, Note student learning strengths and needs, Check for potential paths to student success, Look for potential problem areas, Use information to brainstorm ways to adjust instruction, Decide which adjustments to make, and Evaluate student progress, three key teaching strategies were implemented in the writer’s class. At the end, by applying the strategies—confirming and focusing on the autistic learner’s strengths that are potential for his success, applying assessment differentiation, and empowering both the autistic learner as well as his classmates—it was found that the autistic learner benefited from this more ‘humane’ teaching strategy and suceeded.
Pritchard (2009) describes autism as a developmental disorder characterized by severe deficits in social interaction and communication, by an obsession with an extremely limited range of activities and interests, and often by the presence of repetitive behaviors. Those with autism, he further states, are often excessively rigid in their behavior and response to stimuli, and are largely emotionally detached. Schall and McDonough (2010) added that many young adults with ASD experience secondary characteristics including displaying sensory sensitivities, behavior challenges, and additional mental health diagnoses such as anxiety disorder and depression.
This paper intends to share a good practice of modifying an English reading class in a higher institution with an autistic learner in it so that the autistic learner can succeed. By applying three teaching strategies—confirming and focusing on the autistic learner’s strengths that are potential for his success to fulfill the course demands, applying assessment differentiation, and empowering both the autistic learner as well as his classmates—the autistic learner benefited from this more ‘humane’ teaching strategy and suceeded.
The ‘Torture’ of a reading class for an autistic learner
In my reading class, students are taught reading strategy and techniques—such as scanning, skimming, predicting, connecting information, understanding organization dan making inferences—to increase their reading effectiveness Pre-reading, while-reading, and post-reading activities are exposed and carried out in class, which include mind mapping, games, songs, reciting, watching movie clips, making a comic, presentation, and playing a skit. Outside the class, students read, write in their reading log how they read, and work in groups to creatively present a chapter. At the end of the semester, they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ability to apply the reading strategy and techniques in a written reading-test.
Last year, a 23-year-old autistic student named Chris (*pseudonym) took my reading course for second-semester college students. He failed, mostly of course, due to my incapability to understand his strength and make use of it. The second time he enrolled in my class to retake the course, I decided to learn more about his predicament. I remembered how he failed his weekly reading quickchecks and other written tests. When time was up, and I collected students’ work, he would be almost in tears, frustratedly and desperately putting his arms on his paper, not allowing me to collect his. Then, at the end of the class, he would slowly and hesitantly came to me, head down, and complained how he could not do what he knew was expected from him, which made you see immediately that he felt sorry for himself more than blaming you as the teacher who could not find a more appropriate task for him. The bottom line was, I realized that such a reading class had been a torture to him.
Humanizing the reading class
As I checked my teaching journal, however, I ultimately identified his strengths. The most clearly-observed strengths were scanning and mindmapping. He was capable of scanning specific details, eventhough he found difficulties in describing what those details specify in the text. I found that he liked mindmapping, which he prefered to do by hand—instead of using some online applications such as mindmup. His mindmapping was acceptable from the perspective of content-based post reading activity. I also recalled that he would finally come to an expected answer to a question in a remedial oral reading-test after I gave tens of guiding questions orally. Despite the fact that he could not answer “What classroom activities do you think are the most effective for you to demonstrate your comprehension?”, everyone could notice that he enjoyed performing role play, skit, and doing a presentation. Being ecstatic, I dug more references, determined to humanize my reading class for Chris, my autistic student.
This time, my search was rewarding in no time, as I found INCLUDE strategy, which proved later to be of importance in adjusting my reading class for autistic students. This acronym of Friend & Bursuck’s analysis strategy (2014, 2015) consists of Identify classroom demands, Note student learning strengths and needs, Check for potential paths to students success, Look for potential problem areas, Use information to brainstorm ways to adjust instruction, Decide which adjustments to make, and lastly, Evaluate student progress.
This strategy immediately appealed to me for several reasons. First, instead of focusing on the problem areas of the learner with special needs, it focuses more on identifying this learner’s strengths—which I already did then, as mentioned earlier. Moreover, Friend and Bursuck (2014) in their sixth-edition book stated that INCLUDE is a systematic approach for helping all students with special needs gain access to the general education curriculum. Special needs has three categories: low-incidence disabilities—which cover autism spectrum disorder and traumatic brain injury; high-incidence disabilities—which cover dyslexia; and special needs other than disabilities—which cover gifted underachiever and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD). Next, it is also explained that this strategy is applicable in an inclusive class they promote, not only in a special education setting in which diverse research was conducted for this publication. I thus concluded that this analysis strategy is appropriate to modify my inclusive reading class with an autistic learner in it.
Therefore, I did as prescribed in INCLUDE: I once again identified the demand of my reading class that students have to fulfill (I); I confirmed the strengths of my autistic student in the reading class that became a potential factor for his success (N, C); and having identified his problems (L,U), I tried to think of alternative instructional and assessment techniques that would help him to succeed (D) without ignoring the other students’ needs and their perception toward their autistic classmate. Then, I tried this and that technique and evaluate his progress (E).
The result of applying the INCLUDE analysis strategy in such a way is formulated as three key teaching strategies that were then implemented to humanize the reading class. Firstly, I confirmed his strength in mindmapping and encouraged him to use it in demonstrating his understanding of every chapter assigned. As a reward, I allowed him to use his mindmaps in weekly quickchecks—when the other students were not allowed to refer to their books. To keep our integrity intact, I talked openly to the class about this policy. Everyone agreed, and only later did I find out that the other students made use of his mindmaps for learning too.
The second strategy applied was assessment differentiation. Knowing that written tests were his problem, whenever possible I gave him more time to complete the tests, or adjusted the reading test by including oral-tested questions. Chris was also suggested so as not to worry about his grades by making him understand the minimum requirement to pass the class, i.e. 60%. I began to notice how he was more willing to hand in written tests—apparently—after he bought the strategy.
The other strategy was empowerment. As classroom demands were identified, in which Chris had to work in groups to present the content of an assigned book chapter, my strategy was to choose his teammates based on my judgement. First, I talked in person with the selected students, trying to find out whether or not they were willing to work with Chris, as well as to share with them what Chris could do individually. I challenged them, by showing my confidence in their capability, to strive for excellence in doing the presentation as a group, balancing each member’s contribution. Afterwards, I talked to Chris, explaining and clarifying the expectation of the project, in which he would be a determining factor for success. We looked at the presentation rubric and discussed it, until Chris was on the same page. On the presentation day, everybody could see that each member did his/her best in a balanced role, and adequate support was given to Chris so that his need to perform was fulfilled.
The journey of learning about and working with an autistic learner has been magical and rewarding for me, and to simply put it, inspiring for others who know him closely. I asked Chris’ classmates these following questions:
- What did you learn from having Chris in your reading Class?
- What impressed you when you worked with him in groups?
Positive responses were given:
- I learned to be patient and considerate, knowing that it was not easy for him.
- I was encouraged to do more than expected, knowing that Chris made a mindmap for every chapter—while I only made one as expected.
- I learned to slow down—which is not bad at all—because it matters to him.
- I am glad and proud of our group because we could do this project together, despite our differences.
This, I consider, is the magic of working with an autistic learner in the reading class.
At the end what remained in my memory was the sparkling relieved smile of Chris as he passed the reading class, and his beaming classmates who became better people because of him. This, I believe, is the result of humanizing the reading class for an autistic learner by confirming and using his strengths for success, assessment differentiation, and empowerment.
Friend, M. & Bursuck, W.D. (2014). Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers. Sixth Edition. New York Pearson Education.
Friend, M. & Bursuck, W.D. (2015). Menuju pendidikan inklusi: Panduan praktis untuk mengajar. Edisi Ketujuh. [Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teacher, Seventh Edition]. Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar
Pritchard, A. (2009). Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom. New York: Routledge
Schall, C.M. and McDonough, J.T. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders in adolescence and early adulthood: Characteristics and issues. Journal of vocational Rehabilitation 32(2010) 81-88. DOI: 10.3233/JVR-2010-0503
Humanizing Your Reading Class: The Magic of Working with an Autistic Learner
Mega Wati, Indonesia