TTU workshop shows teachers what it's like to be a person with autism

A group of teachers from Jackson, Overton and White counties had an opportunity recently to learn what it may be like to have autism.

That’s because they participated in a workshop at Tennessee Tech University that simulated the learning experiences of children with autism. Those simulation experiences, organizers say, helped the teachers discover how to better accommodate the specific classroom and learning needs for those children.

Funded by a $51,000 Improving Teacher Quality grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the “Picture This — Success for Teachers and Their Students with Autism” was held on Thursdays for seven weeks and wrapped up just this month.

“This was one of the best workshops about autism I’ve ever attended,” said Judy Goodpasture, a special education teacher for sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Wilson Elementary School in Overton County. “I now have a greater appreciation for my students who may have autism.”

Helen Dainty, instructor of curriculum and instruction at TTU and principal investigator of the project, said it’s estimated that one child out of about 150 has some form of autism.

“It’s not unrealistic to expect every teacher, at some point in his or her career, to have at least one student with autism,” she said.

“This workshop took a proactive approach to prepare teachers to successfully instruct children with autism and foster a beneficial learning environment for every child in the classroom,” Dainty continued.

So how do teachers initially identify a student with autism? The answer isn’t always easy because no single test exists to diagnose the condition. Diagnosis is completed through a series of observations and interviews.

It’s what’s known as a spectrum disorder, Dainty explained, because it manifests itself in so many different ways, through such a wide variety of characteristics.

“A common saying is that ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism,’ indicating that each individual expresses the condition somewhat differently, and that tends to be very true,” she said.

Characteristics most affected by autism, however, include communication skills, sensory impairment, behavior, play and other social interaction activities.

“The intelligence level of a person with autism can range from mental retardation to gifted, and anything in between,” Dainty said.
“That person may be exceptionally verbal or non-verbal; hypersensitive or desensitized to sounds, tastes, light or any other sensory stimuli; or have a tendency to echo or repeat back words or phrases said within earshot — not because his or her brain doesn’t process what’s been said, but because he or she just can’t formulate a verbal response,” she continued.

Therefore, students with autism tend to respond best to routine schedules, detailed instructions and visual examples — which is how the TTU “Picture This” workshop takes its name.

“At the workshop, teachers learned how to create daily and individual picture schedules for their students with autism — and those can also be beneficial to other students whose learning style responds to visual stimuli,” Dainty said.

They also learned to write social stories and academic narratives, which will help prepare students with autism respectively for daily events and homework assignments, with the main areas of concentration being communication in language arts and math.
And they heard personal experiences from parents and other teachers of children with autism.

“It was challenging trying to understand and put myself in someone’s mind who may have autism, but I enjoyed the activities associated with understanding what it feels like to have communication issues and how frustrating it must be trying to communicate with someone who can’t understand you,” Goodpasture said.

“Because of this workshop, I have a better understanding of what it must feel like to have autism and the need those students have for communication. It’s very important for children to find a way to express themselves, and I discovered how a picture schedule or communication board could make a big difference in helping a child learn to communicate,” she concluded.

After completing the weekly workshop, teachers must now participate individually in a two-hour classroom follow-up consultation session, which will determine how much workshop information they’ve been able to utilize in the classroom and support teachers within their classroom environment.

Participating teachers also each received about $1,000 worth of resource materials, including digital cameras and printing stations, Picture Exchange Communication System classroom kits, a variety of resource books and classroom reading books about children with autism and one-year memberships to the Council for Exceptional Children, which includes subscriptions to two publications — Teaching Exceptional Children and Exceptional Children Journal.