Struggling Learners: Helping Students on the Autism Spectrum Meet Common Core ELA Standards
This is a summary of an article which explores the challenges that students, who may be quite bright but are on the autism spectrum, may have meeting the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. The authors believe this process will go more smoothly if educators and parents have a good understanding of three important psychological theories and develop classroom strategies to support students with these deficits. The theories covered here are: Theory of Mind, Central Coherence and Executive Function.
• Lack of a theory of mind – Students with a strong theory of mind “know that other people have thoughts that differ from their own and understand that they need to consider these differences during all social interactions,” say Constable, Grossi, Moniz, and Ryan. Children with autism tend to have difficulty putting themselves in another person’s shoes – they have trouble understanding the facial expressions, gestures, and body language that give clues about others’ thoughts, feelings, intentions, and beliefs and therefore act in ways that seem inappropriate. This deficit has immediate implications for mastering ELA standards, since students are frequently asked to decipher why characters in works of literature behave the way they do.
• Weak central coherence – Students with strong central coherence can see the big picture amidst many details. Children with autism tend to be good with details but have difficulty grasping the overall meaning. This makes it difficult for these students to get the gist of ELA passages because they get caught up in specific details.
• Impaired executive function – Students with autism often struggle with organization and planning, working memory, inhibition control, impulse control, time management, prioritizing, and using new strategies – all of which undermine achievement in ELA classes, especially when it comes to initiating and completing writing tasks.
The authors give several examples of how teachers might accommodate students with these deficits:
Charlotte is a second grader with a weak theory of mind and central coherence. Although she can read on grade level, she has difficulty answering questions about stories the class is reading – how the words in a story relate to one another and why characters act the way they do. Charlotte’s teacher writes a “social narrative” about the story the class is reading that explicitly addresses these deficits: Maria and Gina are best friends. They spend all their time together. One day, Maria came to school with shoes that were hot pink with orange stripes and purple bows. Gina thought that they were the ugliest shoes that she had ever seen. She did not want to hurt Maria’s feelings, so she just said, “Oh, Maria, you got new shoes. Where did you get them?” Sometimes, it is important to not say what you are really thinking so that you do not hurt other people’s feelings. This helps Charlotte understand the text and why the girls acted the way they did.
Stephen, an eighth grader, doesn’t understand why a character in the book the class is reading stops coming to school after he is bullied and ostracized. Stephen, unlike most of the other students in the class, is unable to view the situation from the victim’s point of view. To help Stephen understand, his teacher works with the class to create a four-panel comic strip in which stick figures dramatize the isolation of the boy and thought balloons express his inner feelings. In the last panel, the boy says to himself, “I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school.”
John, a kindergarten student with autism, is writing about frogs, which fascinate him, when his pencil breaks. He rummages in his desk looking for another pencil and can’t find one, and becomes anxious and mutters that he is stupid for not being better prepared. “This very bright, high-functioning child did not have the social and communication skills to raise his hand and ask his teacher for a pencil because he did not realize that his teacher could help him by providing another one,” explain Constable, Grossi, Moniz, and Ryan. His teacher (assisted by a support team) identifies the target behaviors and customizes a strategy: she attaches a small card with a picture of a frog and the word Help to the corner of the boy’s desk and teaches him to hold up the card, wait for an adult to acknowledge him, and ask for help when he needs it. She also identifies peers who can help him and has him practice using the frog signal to ask for help until he is comfortable with the procedure.
Jack, a fifth grader, has difficulty getting started with writing assignments and becomes anxious when he notices that classmates are ahead of him with their writing. The teacher has a classroom assistant sit with Jack and ask specific questions that elicit his knowledge of the subject, fill in a graphic organizer, and get started with the assignment.
This is a summary from the Marshall Memo of an article in Teaching Exceptional Children by Susan Constable, Barrie Grossi, and Alexis Moniz (Rhode Island Department of Education), and Lynne Ryan (Providence College, RI)
“Meeting the Common Core State Standards for Students with Autism: The Challenge for Educators” by Susan Constable, Barrie Grossi, Alexis Moniz, and Lynne Ryan in Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 2013 (Vol. 45, #3, p. 6-13)