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Stretching my teaching muscle- Teaching concepts on the spectrum

August 21, 2012



Mom sent me a clown costume for our circus week and I had fun forcing the kids to dress up and take pictures. I mean, the kids had fun.  Can’t you tell? He was actually smiling in the picture just previous to this and this is his ‘I’m done with this cheese, Mom’ face.  Cheese = taking pictures.


In my glamorous past life as a public school first grade teacher I had a lot of fun moments like this.  I loved teaching in themes and bringing in all sorts of new experiences and memories for my students.  We made apple sauce and baked cupcakes for Dr. Seuss’s birthday.  We measured pumpkins and sang songs during carpet time.  I have always had a knack and a desire to teach. Maybe its genetic, both my mother and grandmother taught.  Ideas about teaching differently to kids that aren’t ‘getting it’ come to me easily. I can often guess exactly how I need to word something or how I need to demonstrate something so that the light bulb turns on.  The patience I generally lack on a daily basis shows up and I can wait for the kid to do the work in front of me so I can really see that they understand.  I do have a gift and I am thankful because teaching is fun!


Then God blessed me with another gift in the form of my perfectly adorable, intelligent child with autism.  And chuckled at my pride of having this gift of teaching.  And served me up a huge dose of humility.




One way that autism presents in MY child, I hesitate to say all children on the spectrum although I have heard from lots of other mommies that this is common,  is the lack of picking up on concepts.  While all the other little boys were taking their garden hoses and putting out the ‘fires’ in the back yard.. Rett hadn’t grasped what a fire man is or what he does.  In fact.. I still don’t think he has because we don’t have a movie on that. I should get a movie.  Concepts like this don’t just sink in like other kids.  They have to be explicitly taught or I have to buy a movie.  Honestly a movie usually works better.  Don’t ask me why. Another one of those things.


Rett had to be explicitly taught all his pronouns.  And all his adjectives. I remember countless times of hunting for ‘blue whale’ in the backyard because I was attempting to get him to figure out what a ‘color’ was and that the color of his toy was blue.  Honestly sometimes it really is like trying to teach someone that doesn’t speak your language.  Who has no language of his own to bounce from.  But once it clicks.. once the light bulb turns on, he’s got it.


This teaching of concepts is very challenging. I can only imagine what goes on everyday at school for special ed teachers or any teachers who have a Rett in their classroom. It can be exasperating teaching something to someone that you just picked up on. Why do I need to teach this to you, how do I teach it and when are you going to catch on are just a few questions bouncing around in your head.   Thankfully we’ve had awesome speech teachers who have helped us with some of this along the way.


This week for tot school we are doing insects/bugs. Last week I dove into ‘teaching’ size sequence. I say that loosely because I modeled it once and my kids did it alone.  Figure that out. I honestly had no clue how to explain size sequence to two children who still aren’t usually big and little appropriately but thank goodness they are really good at arranging things.  This week fueled by that AWESOME job of ‘teaching’, I dove into my next dreaded concept of same versus different.


First, I agonized about breaking same and different down into very basic terms and how to demonstrate that simply.  I decided I needed to use actual things and the more ‘same’ they were, the better. Then compared to something else vastly different.  Then move them a little closer. So in the beginning perhaps a giraffe versus a shoe. Then two small giraffes versus a large giraffe later on.  Then after that I would move onto the paper exercises that often come in the tot print outs.


I had bought these bugs to go along with our unit so my first bright idea was to use them to model same and different.  I’m sure the mommies out there who realize that I’m trying to use a brand new toy to teach which means me being in control of it and forcing this kid to interact the way I want to is probably hopeless. But in the moment it seemed like such a great idea. I showed him two butterflies and how they were the same. Then added in a spider and how it was different. Then two spiders were the same and a grasshopper was different.  We looked at bugs with wings versus no wings. We looked at green bugs versus a red one.  He was repeating same and different probably to make me shut up so he could play with these new awesome toys.  I of course was overjoyed with my amazing teaching and thought this repetition meant knowledge.




And as I had already outlined in my ‘plan’ (oh how I love those), I moved on to the paper work. My husband usually does the cutting out of all my manipulatives for the week and he had cut these apart. They were supposed to be an entire worksheet. It was really awesome because I could work with one piece at a time and not overwhelm him with all the work at once. So I explained same same same DIFFERENT and why. Ok we didn’t go into great detail here, he’s 3. I mostly said ‘red red red GREEN’ which one is different? Then we put blocks on the ‘different ones’.  Then I let him do the activity himself.  And he did it perfectly! Isn’t that wonderful?


Except that another one of those ‘things’ about my kid is his amazing memory. And I’m pretty confident to tell you that all I taught my kid was ‘repeat what mommy is blabbing on and on about to get her to be quiet and let you play’ and ‘memorize what picture the block goes on so that the crazy mommy will leave you alone’.


So tomorrow I will try again.  I’m sure someone out there can tell me if he’s even ready to learn this concept.  I know age wise he is. But who knows what skills you truly need before you can grasp this one. I have no formal training in any of this. At the end of the day, all the moments that I’ve taught only semi-prepared me to teach my own special needs children.

And I hope that as many of you send your little ones off to their first days of school.  And you see your excited, collected, plan filled teacher you remember that she more then likely has a child like Rett, either with autism or with another learning disability, who she is expected to reach without any formal training. And unlike me, she’s got 20 others to teach at the same time.  Bring her a coffee and give her a smile because she’s going to need encouragement and a few pick me ups during this school year.

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