Why Do Kids with Autism Do That?
I have seen the power struggle first hand. A teacher, thinking they are doing the right thing and wanting to be in charge of a classroom, tells a kid with Autism to take their hands off their ears and work on an assignment in front of them. They students doesn’t comply. The teacher tries to coax or plead or force compliance… and they don’t succeed.
The question is, why do kids with Autism do that?
I think if teachers really thought about the answer to that question, they would address students in the classroom differently and really pick their battles.
I used to work with a boy whose Autism presented pretty severely. He was nonverbal, had a lot of repetitive behavior, including rocking, and he nearly always had his hands over his ears. When a hand was needed to do something, he would press his shoulder to his ear and use that instead. I had a new paraeducator working with me over a summer session and the first day she really insisted he put his hands down. He would do it for just seconds and then his hands would return to his shoulders. I told her to let him leave his hands there and she asked Why? Why does he do that.
Do you wonder too?
Kids with Autism have several quirks that we non-Autistics find different. Truth is I think that has to do with us not really understanding what it’s like in the mind and body of someone with Autism.
So, why do they do that? And what should we do as teachers that takes into consideration a student’s Autism and also their need for learning?
Why do kids with Autism AVOID EYE CONTACT?
A lot of Autism is related to sensory deficits. The avoidance of eye contact is no different. When a person is talking, you have to process auditorily and sometimes that makes it difficult to process visually. So… a kid with Autism may have to choose to listen to a person or look at them.
Sensory may not always be the reason. Sometimes it can also be a deficit in social skills, which is another hallmark of Autism.
AS A TEACHER: Be really considerate of the amount of sensory input in your classroom. Think about what a students is having to process through all five senses. I once had a student who was new to the campus and would beat us silly throughout the day. We had to find the problem and it turned out to be the sound of the classroom fridge as it made ice! The noise was a trigger. To this kid I am sure it was the equivalent of scratching nails down a blackboard every 15 minutes… and, yeah, that fridge was out pronto!
It is important to not battle with a student who is trying to limit their sensory input. The better approach is to support it. Look, listen, and smell around your room. What does your lighting look like? What about your classroom’s smell. Things to think about.
Do you need more info about setting up a successful Autism Classroom? Check out this post on Physical Structure.
Why do kids with Autism COVER/CLOSE THEIR EYES?
The same sensory limiting that happens with covering the ears happens with the eyes too. There is a lot to process when you really consider what you are looking at in a given day. The person in front of you, the people and things in the background, the lights, the motion of the clock or things moving because of the AC. It is a lot. Closing eyes limits the overload.
AS A TEACHER: Think about work stations in your classroom- do they have a way to limit or minimize the sensory information coming in? A desk facing the wall or away from the class and the action may help. Again, really think about all the sensory coming in visually.
Why do kids with Autism WALK WITHOUT SHOES?
I have a few pairs of shoes in my closet I could do without, don’t you? The reason is because they pinch my toes or feel a little tight. Well, think about the sensory information that comes in from your foot. Even in comfortable shoes, you entire foot on the ground is a lot of sensory input. Walking on your toes is less input. That’s one theory anyway. Another is that it could relate to motor development, but I have found the first to be more true.
AS A TEACHER: It is okay to allow a student to work in their station without shoes (pick your battles), but be sure you have a clear procedure to get the shoes on when needed. When time for PE or lunch or bus rolls around, use a visual to indicate it is time for shoes.
You’ll need to practice it ahead of time, so bust out the timer and visual, indicate it is time, and build up the student’s shoe stamina and tolerance for that kind of sensory input.
Why do kids with Autism NOT TALK?
Language differences are a hallmark of Autism. Some students are too good with language. I knew a boy with Autism who was amazing with different languages- in all he knew 4! Unfortunately he thought he could buy a house for less than $100, but everyone is great and bad at different things.
For students who are nonverbal, and please don’t confuse that with a low IQ, it is presumed that language is a challenge for a couple of different reasons.
One reason may be due to brain development. Several people with Autism who have found their voice say they were able to understand language and formulate thoughts all along… they just could not get their brain to get their mouth to deliver the message.
There are some other theories about why kids who are nonverbal with Autism do not talk and that includes a difficulty with processing and understanding language itself, that their minds work better with images and not symbols/words… the truth is there is no definitive reason and much more research will need to be done to determine the real reason nonverbals don’t talk.
AS A TEACHER: Always have a mode of communication available for students other than just talking. Try Core boards, communication devices, and visuals to bridge the gap. What you should never do is stop talking to a person who in nonverbal! Check out this prior blog post all about communicating with nonverbal students.
Why do kids with Autism ECHO or REPEAT WORDS?
I used to work with a teacher who always repeated what she said. I could never figure out if it was for effect or just because she thought what she was saying was important. Truth is echoing speech is a normal part of language development. It will depend a lot on the specific student if there is a delay in language acquisition or if it has more to do with associating certain feelings or ideas with word clusters (Check out this post all about Echolalia). There is even a theory that Echolalia is just what comes out when a person with Autism who is challenged with speech tries to talk… and that has to do with brain development. So, what do we do as teachers?
AS A TEACHER: If you are working with a student who is Echolalic and need concrete strategies on what to do, please check out this post on Echolalia here. It is super helpful.
Why do kids with Autism STIM?
Stim is short for stimulatory and it suggests self-stimulatory behavior. For a kid with Autism, it may look like spinning, flapping hands, or rocking. For everyone else… it probably looks the same. Most people have a Stim… like tapping a pencil or bouncing their leg. I used to know an adult woman who sucked on her hair. Yeah. I know.
The reason for the stim is the same. People stim to manage their emotions- maybe they feel tired, anxious, nervous or bored. Or someone with Autism may also stim to block sensory input. What makes stimming with Autism different is the amount of stimming and the poor social cues. Autistics stim more than most and also don’t filter the stim based on social appropriateness- like making humming noises in the library. Most people would realize that violates social norms, but a kid with Autism may not know, notice, or care.
AS A TEACHER: You can try to retrain a stimmer to replace their preferred stim with a socially appropriate one. Maybe instead of spinning you introduce and train a stress ball. Also, you can manage the environmental structure to lessen the sensory input you have in your classroom. Is the stim to shut out all the sensory noise? It may be emotion related. Is there a clear and predictable routine in your room? That may lessen the anxiety and, thus, the stim. Need to learn more about Visual Schedules, click here.
Why do kids with Autism FIXATE?
If you know a kid with Autism, you can probably relate. It may be movie characters, a certain food, or the entire lineup of every pro football team ever… kids with Autism fixate on things. But, and I bet you saw this coming, so do most people. When the Walking Dead hit Netflix, I could barely leave my couch. Netflix has, in fact, shamed me on more than one binge watching escapade by asking me if I was still watching. This has also happened to me with a couple of games on my phone- I just got hung up on it and wanted to do it all the time.
With brains that are neurologically different, though, kids with Autism may not be able to get ‘off’ a thing as easily as most.
AS A TEACHER: See if there are ways to incorporate the fixed item into instruction or activities. If it’s football they love, try football math or reading about football players. Bring the mountain to the student… not try to break them of or fight them on the fixation. We gotta pick our battles.
Why do kids with Autism TRANSITION POORLY?
I know some adults who hate when their schedule is changed. It upsets them. It upsets me. There is a lot of stress associated with deviating from a plan or a routine. We are all comforted by a predictableness to our day. I bet you have something like ‘clockwork’ in your day that you’d be frustrated to miss, like your morning cup of joe or your bedtime. With trouble managing emotions and processing lots of sensory information, it’s no wonder.
AS A TEACHER: Make sure you have a student’s schedule available for them. You also want to plan your lessons so there is a routine to them. These two things allow for a predictability in a student’s day. Try a visual schedule like this one (HERE) or read the full post on Visual Structure.
And then don’t forget to teach how to deal with and process breaks in routine. You know a fire drill is going to happen sooner or later, so what is the process for the student? How can we train them to recover from a schedule shift? Be sure to have a plan.
Why do kids with Autism ROCK
And I mean rock like awesome (otherwise see Stimming Why explained above)…
I love working with students with Autism. The one thing I always urge the people around them to remember is that, most likely, the person inside is not mentally inferior… they are just neurologically different. It is so, so important to treat kids with Autism with Presumed Competence (read more here) and to continue to challenge them mentally. It could be the Early Emerging reader you have read them for the 100th time is actually what is driving them bonkers and not the reading itself or the sound of your voice. Be sure to keep the rigor and assume they are with it even if they ARE doing all the things in this post.
Now, go forth and teach on!
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