This article comes after much thought over the past six months on a matter that is very important to me, one I believe more people should be concerned about. I am talking about the autism spectrum, and how it is treated in educational circles (an article on the societal aspects of autism is forthcoming). While my condition has never warranted an official diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I have several very mild traits that could position me on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. In addition to autistic traits, I also have severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Until recently, when I started thinking critically about the autism spectrum, and how kids on it are affected in an educational setting, I never would have entertained the thought of writing this piece.
My previous inaction was due to two things: a limited number of experiences dealing with the autism spectrum in educational settings, and my own inability, until very recently, to come to terms with my own condition. I have, by now, overcome many of the difficulties that have stood in my way, and I am ready to address what I see as a growing need for action on behalf of those who still struggle on a daily basis with a variety of challenges most people don’t often consider.
Thanks to my parents and others, I’ve learned to make the best of my situation; recognizing that I could have a much worse condition. Thus, I am attempting to use my “issues” in a positive way to enhance the lives of others.
Autism is characterized, in general, by notable delays in communication ability, a narrow range of interests, repetitive behaviors, and impediments in cognitive development and social interaction. Delays in communication ability and other key cognitive skill areas often translate into issues in reading social cues and providing proper social responses.
It needs to be stated that autism is a series of neurological disorders on a widening spectrum of severity (hence the phrase “autism spectrum disorder,” and the associated ASD acronym). It’s not just one disorder; but a number of related disorders, grouped together for better diagnosis. The spectrum goes from “high-functioning,” to “low-functioning;” the higher one is on the spectrum, the closer he/she is to so-called “normal” behavior.
Prior to 2013, there were a number of disorders that were part of the autism spectrum, but separately diagnosed from autism, which was also its own disorder.
In early 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was revised, and the individual conditions (including Asperger’s Syndrome) were consolidated and/or eliminated, and spread across the autism spectrum. With that change in effect, one who was previously diagnosed explicitly with mild to severe Asperger’s, for example, may now be instead diagnosed with “mild autism.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more streamlined diagnoses moving forward.
I have an extreme interest in weather. When I was in high school, I attended four summer weather camp programs across the country. In the course of those early experiences, I was given an opportunity to become a meteorological intern. Nearly five years later, I’ve worked my way to the position of lead intern for How The Weatherworks, a weather consulting company based in Naples, FL. In the past eight years, I have also served with a number of other organizations in weather related learning-facilitation roles.
Through these experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with or otherwise learn of a number of kids who have traits, or more serious manifestations, of conditions across the autism spectrum. Whatever their unique situation, these kids have all shared a unifying theme: a near-obsession, or at least moderate to high interest, for meteorology. For some of these kids, meteorology has essentially given them a purpose in life.
As I continue to work with a number of ASD students in meteorology, I am finding an unfortunate trend. Due to the way autism spectrum disorders affect people, these students are typically regarded by others to be “different,” in educational environments, and in wider societal settings. They may be bullied or excluded from activities by their peers; treated poorly by teachers in the classroom; and/or looked down upon as “not normal.”
Yes, these kids sometimes demonstrate behavioral problems and can be disruptive to other students. They can talk incessantly, or be the source of other verbal distraction. They can be a source of physical distraction and may even be aggressive towards classmates or teachers.
But, far more often than not, these kids are also very bright and intelligent, with talents that would go undiscovered were they to be ignored.
People on the autism spectrum think differently, but not necessarily in a negative way. They process information at a different rate and manner than other people. While some non-spectrum individuals seem to possess an innate skill for social activity, most, if not all, individuals on the spectrum struggle socially to some degree. This is due to inhibitions in the parts of the brain that process social cues and proper response triggers.
Many ASD students participate in perfectly “normal” conversations, but these often require much more effort. In face-to-face situations, they may have trouble making eye contact, focusing on conversation, maintaining spatial awareness, or have other issues.
Educational systems often attempt to handle the perceived difference of ASD students, mitigating their behavior in an integrated classroom. For example, fellow classmates may be taught the basics of the autism spectrum, so that they may better understand and adjust to the behavior of the ASD student. Adaptive learning strategies may be implemented to allow for better accommodation of the student, as well.
Are these the best educational approaches for these students?
I’m not saying that there is inherently a “right” or “wrong” way to teach students who are on the autism spectrum, but I think right now, school systems are more focused on educating, when they should be empowering these ASD students to learn.
One of my mentors, H. Michael Mogil (owner of How The Weatherworks), proposed that there is a difference between education and learning. Education, Mogil suggests, is where “someone else feeds you information.” Contrast this with learning, where “the learning comes from within… one feeds oneself…”
That being said, shouldn’t we give ASD students a chance to find their focus (e.g., weather), and then use this to enable them to see the cross-curricula connections (e.g., graphs of weather data translating into work in statistics, and weather reporting, where they could learn technical skills such as graphic design)? If we can capture their interests and use this focus to get them interested in learning, then the things that don’t interest them could become more interesting, leading to a more conducive environment for learning.
If given something positive to focus on, many students who are on the autism spectrum can overcome, or at least improve upon their existing condition. They can find the motivation they may otherwise lack by capitalizing on their passion. That approach has worked for me, and it has worked for ASD students I’ve interacted with.
Meteorology has served as a point of interest for a few of the ASD students I’ve met. In the same way I have, they’ve found a genuine interest and passion and have focused more as a result elsewhere in school. One former weather camper has applied his passion for weather forecasting towards his interest in sports: on several occasions, he has provided impact-based forecasts to his school; these forecasts have helped school officials in deciding whether or not to continue with their scheduled sporting events.
One of the students I work with regularly has a particularly strong memory for weather information. He can describe, in minute detail, the weather for numerous locations across the country dating back at least five years. This includes extreme events, of course, but, even more impressive, is that it extends to so-called “normal” weather (variables including daily high and low temperature recordings, type of weather that occurred, time that thunderstorms occurred…).
The fact that students with autism spectrum disorders think “differently” can actually become strengths for them, because they often have extraordinary memories and other mental visualization skills.
Some of these students are prodigiously gifted in math. Numbers are like words to them; they can easily solve math problems that cause other kids their age to pull their hair out in frustration. Some do poorly in math, yet can read nearly 1,000 words per minute with near-perfect comprehension. If kids are exhibiting these kinds of talents, why are they ostracized? Why aren’t they allowed to foster their interests? Why, in conversation with peers, are they seen as “different?”
It is within this scenario that mentors can prove hugely beneficial for students who are on the spectrum. Professionals, and even pre-professionals, are usually more than willing to help up-and-coming students. They can answer questions, and provide valuable learning opportunities. They can help further refine the student’s foci, or, even, help them find new areas on which to concentrate. They can, at least in some small part, fill the social void in the student’s life by giving them someone with whom they can communicate, allowing them to build on existing social skills. I have had several mentors in meteorology, and they have each afforded me unique opportunities; internships, on-the-job shadow sessions, and even one-on-one training in meteorology topics.
I’ve also formed lasting professional relationships with some of them, earning many valuable learning opportunities on things that aren’t necessarily taught in school; networking, proper business conduct, and professionalism, among them. The benefits resulting from having a good mentor or two are huge, for those on the autism spectrum, and for those who aren’t.
I am now paying those efforts forward by directly mentoring two middle school students in meteorology. It’s amazing to see that they have responded to me in much the same way I responded to my own mentors at their age.
In my limited research into the autism spectrum, I have learned about Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted animal scientist and professor at Colorado State University. She is widely regarded as one of the most well-respected people in the world today when it comes to the autism spectrum. She is an advocate for people who are on the autism spectrum, and much of her work on the matter has focused on mentoring. Her studies have validated my feelings regarding mentors and their value to ASD students.
In closing, I leave you with this question, and associated thoughts:
Why can’t educators, and people in general, just see the person, and not the problem?
I know doing this isn’t simple or easy, but we need to remove the labels and see past the problems exhibited by individuals who are on the autism spectrum. We need to be willing to work with them, regardless of how hard it may be, on their self-improvement, as well as on our own understanding and acceptance of their condition.
There is hope for kids who are on the autism spectrum, whether they are high- or low- functioning. For most individuals, some improvement in their condition should be possible. There is a fighting chance, especially, for those whose condition is not that severe. Many already have the inherent ability and desire to improve themselves. They just need some help.
Autism spectrum disorders can be beaten, with hard work and a will to persevere. I’ve seen both sides; I’ve been the one labeled, and I’ve been the one attempting to work with individuals without labeling them.
I know from experience that autism isn’t always easy to deal with, but dealing with it is exactly what we need to be doing. The good of the few, is, in this and many other cases, just as important as the good of the many.
*If you have worked in an educational setting with a student who is on the autism spectrum, I would appreciate any applicable comments and feedback you could give relating to successful strategies you used to focus or otherwise engage them, or any other comments you think would be useful. Also, if you feel that this article could prove useful to others, please do not hesitate to share with them. Comments can be sent to matt.bolton [at] weatherworks.com.
*I hope to fold feedback I receive into other articles I’m writing on autism, on mentoring, and on the societal aspects of autism (which will be a companion to the education-related post I’m sharing with you now). Applicable strategies may also be incorporated at weather camp programs, and elsewhere, to create a more conducive learning environment for students.