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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Monday, December 18, 2006


What is "Good Practice?"

I am borrowing the title of this blog from Dr. Rita Jordan and Stuard Powell, from their book Autism and Learning: A Guide to Good Practice. I hear it used in references to teaching methods that still remain unproven as "effective autism" teaching methodologies -- preached like gospel. Repeated over and over again, the term has become a meaningless cliche. So if we are going to use it, how do we define it, as we continue to know little about autism? It seems we all want good practice, but in advocacy and "fact sheets" the term is used abitrarily and no one can truly define what it is with regards to teaching autistic pupils. As Jordan and Powell note, however, it is governments that want to hear it. I appreciate this book and how it gives some practical and sensible answers to re-evaluating ourselves in how we approach and think about autism, and respects the learning style of the person.

I have summarized some of the first chapters for those who have not yet read the book, in hopes that educators will pick it up:

"With increased public awareness of autism and the proliferation of one day courses and seminars, many teachers are developing at least a cursory knowledge of autism and its implications. This is a positive step, if it leads to an awareness of the complexity of the condition and a recognition that there is more to be known both in terms of understanding the condition, and ways of meeting the needs that arise from it. It is less positive if, as is sometimes the case, just the difficulties are emphasized, so that the teacher is left feeling that intervention is pointless or needs to be left to the 'specialists.'...teachers need the knowledge and the support to know when and how to intervene and how to make that intervention effective....there are still numerous examples of where teachers, especially perhaps in the mainstream, either do not fully appreciate the nature and extent of the child's difficulties or are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to alter their own approach to teaching to accomdoate those difficulties. Parents of children with autism are still often told by mainstream teachers, even when the child is academically able, that, if his or her problems are that severe they do not 'belong' in a mainstream school. Ironically, it may be the very wish not to separate and segregate children that leads to educationists refusing to 'label' a child or to see the value of a diagnositic category such as autism, which in turn leads to interpretation of behaviour as wilful adn the subsequent expulsion when the child fails to conform. We would suggest, therefore, that recognition of autism as a condition with important educational consequences is a first step to creating good practice. There has to be some understanding of the kinds of difficulties that [that autistic people exerience] so that behaviour is not misinterpreted and the children's difficulties and strengths in particular contexts (their special education needs) are understood. Yet it is here that there must be an INTERFACE with good teaching. Without the skills of observation, the capacity to motivate and involve,the knowledge about autism will not translate into good practice. The art and science of teaching has to be informed by the knowledge of autism, but also has to exist in its own right. Without it, pracitioners are reduced to following set routines and recipies and some home treatment programmes are indeed based on this, so that they can be performed by paraprofessionals and parents. Such programmes have some value (and indeed extensive claims are made for their success), if only that they offer intensive early positive intervention, but they are also limited. 'Good practice' should involve professional judgement and the capacity to adjust the programme to meet the changing needs of the child and the situation." (pp.16-17)...

"Some of those involved in developing the processs of accreditation began to have doubts about its validity on the grounds that 'good practice' could not be defined. Indeed, early attempts to reduce the task of the peer reviewers to the ticking of checklists of certain behaviours, did prove abortive as these quantitative assessments seemed to bear little relation to perceived quality. What they did do, however, is highlight the fact that professional and experienced judgements are just that, and their subjective basis cannot be disguised by attempts to provide quantitative ticklists. The objectivity must reside in the selection and training of those making the judgements and hte value of the judgements resides in the quality of those making them. In effect, while it may not be possibel to define good practice, it is possible to recognize it and it is the experience and knowledge of the observers that determines the validity of that recognition." (pp.18-19).

The Lure of the Recipie

"We have already mentioned the dangers that may arise from knowledge of autism that stops with a knowledge of the characteristic difficulties and we have shown that good practice must incorporate both knowledge of autism and good teaching techniques. We would like to mention here another source of danger in the way that some teachers and some authorities adopt training in one particular approach as the training for autism. The particular training packages that are marketed in this way are of variable quality, but our worries do not stem from the adoption of any particular approach, but from the notion that training in any one method will be adequate for developing expertise in working with people with autism." (p. 19)

"Thus, we would want to eschew adherence to any one approach, especially when followed as a set recipie. We recognize that teachers would sometimes wish to know exactly waht to do with Johnnie on Monday morning, but we also know that most teachers recognise this as an unsatisfactory solution to their difficulties. An outsider may be able to offer something useful to resolve a particular situation with a particular child (and there will be times when all of us get stuck in our approach to a problem and it helps to talk it over with others and gain fresh insights and suggestions) but most teachers do not want the sense of being de-skilled, which comes from having to follow someone else's package without being able to adapt or extend it. In our experience, what teachers want is to know what strategies there are available and to understand both the potentialities and the limitations of their use. They want the time and resources to enable them to observe and make their own evaluations of the child and the situation, and they want sufficient flexibility within their work situations to enable them to apply the strategies and approaches their professional judgement dictates.

Many teachers, then, describe the approach they use as 'eclectic' and will go on to elaborate to the effect that they 'take the best from a range of different approaches.' This could represent as teachers suggest, the best of all worlds, or it could be chaotic with the benefits of one approach being negated or unrealized because another approach has a directly contrary effect. It may also mean that no one approach is given a chance and that the teacher does not really understand the rationale for each approach, but only uses some technique that has a difference meaning and value divorced from its proper context....[For example: Option and Lovaas style] On the one hand, they [the children] are being encouraged to make spontaneous moves towards interactive play with an adult and to enjoy rather than fear the experience. On they other, they are being made to conform in a very set way, there is stress in having to identify and produce the one correct response on cue and the adult may dispense spoonfuls of jam but may also dispense sharp reprimands which may even be shouted (from witnessing some Lovaas style programmes). It may seem as if we are suggesting that one of these approaches is better than the other; it is true that Option is more easily accomodated without our approach than Lovaas, but that is not the point we are trying to make. The point is, that to employ both approaches would be confusing and the aims of neither programme are likely to be fulfilled." (pp. 21-22)

"It is not only important, therefore, that what is done fits together into a coherent whole and that each part of the curriculum contributes to the overall aims for the child, but also that there is a prinicipled rationale for teacher one thing rather than another or in one way rather than another. These principles should reflect what is known of autism, what is known of the child, and hte overal educational philosophy of the school. They should respect and incoroprate where possible, the views of the parents and of the child. This may involve elements that come originally from an eclectic trawl of different approaches, but the dangers of this are avoided by the principles guiding their inclusion and the way in which they fit together to serve the overall educational aims for that child." (p.22)

I have taken the liberty of summarizing Jordan's and Powell's "Curriculum for Autism,' on pages 24- 27. "A curriculum for pupils with autism, therefore, may or may not incoporate the National Curriculum, but it should have the following features:

1. It's content should be determined by the needs of the child rather than cultural values in respect to academic subjects adn so it needs to be pupil centred and not subject centred;

2. It will need to give priority to communication and interpersonal areas including the specific teaching of cultural norms and meanings;

3. Functional life skills should be involved from the start (there is no reason why the child should not be sorting knives from forks or socks from pants, rather than plastic bunnes from plastic Christmas trees), although we would be wary of having too low expectations and teaching children of 12 to clean toilets (as happens in some curricula) on the grounds that they will be expert by the time they are ready to take a job;

4. We would also take an eclectic leaf from the Higashi approach (Quill et al., 1989), as well as from British primiary school survival tactics and inlcude a period each day of sustained physical activity;

5. a) All centres should look at ways of encouraging integration and teaching the child with autism skills that will help to make this successful;

5. b) There will need to be education for integration into the community and reverse integration where mainstream pupils go to the specialist setting [this] should at least be a possibiltiy;

5. c) There will need to be training in imitation and observational skills, and then a way of providing access to normally developing peers to practise skills, and to have them prompted and drawn to the child's attention in real life contexts;

6. There nees to be some form of structure to minimize stress and promote learning and , in most cases, this is most appropriately provided through visual structure, as in the TEACCH programme;

7. In accordance with our own views of the fundamental difficulties in autism, the teaching approach should be one that provides opportunities for learning to learn. This will involve addressing eachof the areas of difficulty and providing direct teaching in areas where intuitive understanding is lacking. [please note, that there are autisitc people who do not agree with the prinicple of having to "learn how to learn" and this should be understood as there is research going on with regards to autistic cognitive ability and differences in learning styles/intelligence. So I suspect, as we continue to learn about autism, we will become more sophisticated in accomodating autisitc learning styles] Bold Mine.

8. Most children will need some access to 1:1 teaching, although there are some who cannot tolerate this kind of confrontational contact (especially if the teacher sits across from the table from the child) and will respond better in small groups. Note that we merely access to 1:1 teaching so that in some cases, the time allocation can be used by the teacher to observe rather than teach. Although childrne wiht autism will have particular difficulties in learning in and from groups, this does not mean that they should be shielded entirely from group teaching...difficulties need to be seen as a challenge and an opportunity, rather than an indication that this aspect of curriculum work should be denied. [bold mine]

9. It is important that schooling for children with autism does not become a succession of activities devised to address their difficulties; their strengths also need to be developed and encouraged so that we can maximize potential in all areas of development. In the same way, difficulties should not be a barrier to experiences, but rather the teacher should ask of a desired goal 'What support will this child need in order to participate in this activity?';

10. Teachers should try and engender an atmosphers of trust and high expectations, with the trust including an understanding of the child's real difficulties rather than a misperception of them as resulting from laziness or aggression, or whatever. Parents are important partners throughout education, but tyhis is even more the case in autism where there needs to be consistency across all settings if the child is to progress, and where communicative and early interactive skills are often best fostered in a home setting;

11. [It is important] that teachers [know] about autism and the kinds of differences in thinking and learning that can be expected as a result, the curriculum should include policies of staff development in understanding autism;

12. We would make a plea for education, not containment or training. We have already stressed how much there is for the pupil with autism to learn and how dependent such pupils are on being taught explicitly. They cannot afford to spend time on occupation tasks, unless there is a specific educational goal of teaching the child to perform the task in a social group independently or faster than before. We have sometimes seen classes arranged and resourced so that the child as 1:1 time with an adult, only to find that it is wasted by the adult not quite knowing how to use this tiem. The teacher may get the child to perform a task they can already do (mere occupation) or may interfere with the child's spontaneous behaviour, not to extend the play or teach a new procedure, but seemingly because this is the time allotted for 1:1 work. Teaching 1:1 should not be assumed to be like group teaching only easer; it is not! Teachers will need training themselves on how to observe and interpret what the child is doing and, as we point out later in the book, when to intervene and when to hold back.

None of it is easy.....BUT IT IS REWARDING [CAPS MINE], especially if we sometimes manage to 'get it right.'" (Jordan and Powell)

I would love to talk about IQ and overall testing in light of the above. Consider this conclusion to an article in the November issues of GeneWatch, Intelligence and Genetic Determinism, A Brief by the Council For Responsible Genetics:

"Based on findings from current research, further study on brain plasticity and neural development, improvements in learning environments and teaching techniques, and policies which emphasize support for disadvantaged populations [in reference to ethnicity here] are likely to yield more positive outcomes in school achievement. Contrary to what authors of The Bell Curve suggest, key social policies have demonstrated strong positive effects on IQ scores, particularly for disadvantaged groups. Unfortunately, however, a new educational climate is forming. Increases in all kinds of academic testing have overtaken more balanced approaches to learning. Possibly the largest shift occured in 2001 with the "No Child Left Behind" Act implemented by the Bush Adminstration. Research has shown that self-esteem directly effects motivation to learn. We will continue to see that performance on IQ and other standardized tests has an effect on the way students are treated and on their self-esteem. Low scores affect the attitudes of teachers and other adults as well, so that this approach may ensure that students who struggle with testing will end up in classrooms and categories in which they won't be expected to improve. Int his way, performance on tests, rather than helping children to learn and improve, can become self-fulfilling prophecies or failure for both the children and the adults who are expected to teach them."

We know that there are plethora of tests out there unsuitable for the autistic learning style (Mottron, Dawson), which is why we must continue this drive to support autism and insist on a dignified response and approach to teaching and accomodating autistic people.

I'll end with some videos by "Christschool". They remind us that no autistic person should be deemed "a finanicial burden on society," and to get on with accepting autism, working to carefully understand it, and by listing a person's needs before resources and before politics. We can accomodate everyone if we break the barriers of bias, misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Here is the first video which cannot be embedded. You can view it by clicking here. And then this one:

Modern Day Eugenics


Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction) said...

Rita Jordan was my professor at University!

8:55 AM  

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