Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Teach Anything to Someone on the Autism Spectrum

Yesterday was the very first time in my life that I've ever cooked actual raw chicken.  How did I manage to make it to 29 without doing that?  Well, I've always lived at home and, given that in addition to me I have two other siblings with disabilities, my mom quite frankly had more important things to worry about than making sure I knew how to cook and took a turn doing it.  Which really isn't a huge deal in the grand scheme of things - sure that means that I'm having to learn now, but it isn't rocket science so I'm figuring it out.

Though a part of the problem is that I've always been more than a little reluctant to learn how to cook at all - there are so many different individual tasks an experienced cook takes for granted that they know how to do, which for a newbie like me can seem like a bit of a challenge.  Like tonight's adventure: browning hamburger.  I've actually done that one before, but it's been years - though I do remember that if it's pink it's not done yet and that's the important part so I was fine.  What makes it hard though is that an experienced cook sees such a task as so basic and simple that they figure that they can just gloss over an explanation on how it's done.  Which is probably actually sufficient for teaching a neurotypical teenager or young adult how to do it, but it definitely isn't enough to be sure that someone on the spectrum is competent or confident that they know what they're doing.  There are many reasons for this, which I'll touch on during my explanation.

Two notes before I begin:  First, as the title of this post suggests it really applies to teaching anything at all.  Actually, it applies to people off of the spectrum too, but it's even more important if they're are.  Second, this will assume a certain degree of functioning on the part of the learner - I know it would work very well for my brother with much more severe autism, but it assumes that the person your teaching is able to understand and follow basic directions and is being cooperative.  While I can probably understand how someone on the spectrum who isn't is thinking, I wouldn't know how to solve those problems myself.
  • Step 1 - Prepare a suitable environment.  The key here is to make sure that it's as free from distractions as possible.  Many people on the spectrum are hypersensitive to one or more sense, and learning anything can become nearly impossible if the environment is overwhelming.  And even if they're not oversensitive, distracting surroundings are distracting.
  • Step 2 - Make sure that the learner knows that you're teaching them something.  For me, learning something is a completely different mental gear than interacting with someone.  I can either pay full attention to all the social cues a person is giving me, or full attention to learning something, but never both at the same time.  If it's not obvious to me that someone is trying to teach me something, as opposed to them simply wanting me to watch them do it, I'll probably learn nothing when they show me.
  • Step 3 - Don't assume they know anything.  Take my knowledge of cooking chicken, for example.  I've probably watched my mom handling raw chicken literally thousands of times in my life.  Does that mean I learned anything?  No.  All I can recall is that my mom was doing something with chicken and a cutting board... a knife was involved...  People on the autism spectrum have a lot fewer mirror neurons - that's essentially the part of the brain that learns by observing others.  And I've noticed that I seem to pick up on the finer details of what people around me are doing a lot less than the neurotypicals do unless I'm purposely paying attention to it.  Thus, after 29 years of being in the kitchen while my mom was cooking chicken I learned nothing about cooking chicken.  Therefore, it's best to assume that you're going to be starting completely from scratch.
  • Step 4 - Cover all of your bases with your teaching methods.  I've heard somewhere that there's three kinds of learners: those that learn best by seeing, those that learn best by hearing, and those that learn best by doing.  I've also heard other people divide up learning styles in different ways.  Thing is, it's better just to teach to teach in all ways at once - learning by hearing is probably my best method, but that doesn't mean that it isn't extremely helpful to see it and try it myself.  The best way is to show the learner how you do it, explain what you're doing while you do it, and then help guide them as needed while they try it themselves.  When someone teaches me that way, I can move forward with confidence that I'm doing it correctly, while if someone only tells me I find myself uncertain that I'm doing it right unless it's extremely similar to something else I've already done.
  • Step 5 - Explain the big picture, if you can.   While your focus when you're teaching someone to do something is obviously going to be on making sure they now how to do it, explaining as best you can why it needs to be done is extremely helpful.  When you know how what you're doing fits into the big picture it's a lot easier to remember how it's done and know when you're doing it right.
  • Step 6 - Include the importance of exactness.  For some things it's vitally important that you do it precisely the correct way, while others it isn't.  I've observed in myself and in others on the spectrum that we have a difficult time distinguishing which situation we're in unless we're specifically told.  Result: either a lot of stress about getting something perfect that doesn't need to be, or not being careful when we need to be.
  • Step 7 - Include alternative methods.  Similar to not being able to figure out how important exactness is, I've noticed I have a hard time of recognizing when an alternative method would work just as well for a task.  You wouldn't believe how many times someone has taught me their method of doing something, commented that it could be done another way, and the other way made a lot more sense to me or was a lot easier for me.  So if there's more than one way to do what you're teaching someone, be sure to let the person know their options.
  • Step 8 - Include how to know you've finished.  Usually the problem I've had with this one is that the person teaching me to do something seems to think that knowing when you're finished and if you've done it correctly is so blatantly obvious or can be summed up by some variant of 'do it until it's done'.  This might be because of the problem I and others on the spectrum have of taking things too literally - I don't know what 'done' looks like.  I need to be told very specifically.  For example, the counter is not done being wiped once I've wiped a rag across the whole thing, nor is it done when it 'looks clean'.  It's done when my mom thinks that it 'looks clean'.  (There's a huge difference!)  Therefore, be sure the person understands how they can tell that they're done and did it successfully.
  • Step 9 - Do your best to make sure that they learn the right way the first time.  In a previous entry I explained about my rules for doing things and how difficult they can be to change.  And in teaching someone on the spectrum how to do something, you are also helping them create their rules on how to do it.  Therefore, they will probably do it that way every single time that they do it and will have a hard time changing that routine if you later have to clarify or modify what they're doing.  For example, while I was volunteering at a horse stables, one of my duties was to blow the dust out of the seating area by the arena.  When I was taught to do it, I was instructed to make sure that I got the concrete floor, the bench, and the low wall connecting to the arena.  When my boss later asked me to also get the top of the light switch box and a couple of other little things while I was at it, guess which part of the job I could never remember to do?
So, in summary, teaching someone on the autism spectrum is pretty much exactly like teaching anyone else, except that you can't assume that they'll be able to learn it if you're haphazard about it.  But if you use a solid, systematic teaching method that gives the learner the best possible chance of understanding, that amounts to pretty much everything I've described above whether the learner is on or off the spectrum.

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