5 Lessons I Learned Teaching Autistic Kids

Photo from AutismDontPanic.co.uk

Photo from AutismDontPanic.co.uk

5 Lessons Learned Teaching Autistic Children
by Jenny Hansen

My first job out of college was as an autism specialist for the Judevine Center for Autism, based in St. Louis. It was like learning a strange language in a strange land. An extremely fascinating land, but with completely different rules than I was used to.

Autistic minds don’t work the same way as “regular” minds, yet they’re brilliant and funny as hell. My time with Judevine changed the way I see the world, and really honed my ability to find humor in the “everyday.”

I’ve routinely had students in my corporate classes say, “I’ll bet we’re the hardest class you ever had to teach.”

My standard answer is: “You don’t bite, you don’t scratch, and you don’t spit in my face. You’re a piece of cake.”

They always laugh, and they rarely realize I’m serious.


Here are the lessons that really stayed with me from that time in my life:

1. Autism is like having all your senses hopped up on crystal meth.

Imagine the world if you sat in a restaurant with your over-sensitive senses sparking at warp speed. You’d smell the five different shampoos used by your surrounding diners, hear the clink of silverware and the sound of people’s feet scuffing the floor, the air rushing through the vents, along with the hum of traffic outside. And have no ability whatsoever to tune all that sensory input out. Ouch, ouch, OUCH!

2. “Please” and “thank you” imply that a request is optional.

One of the most difficult things for me to learn when I was going through my training was to leave what I considered good manners at the door. The autistic brain is a very concrete one which often makes manners and pronouns difficult to grasp.

For example, the terms “yes” and “no” are quite ambiguous: “Yes, WHAT?” or “No, what??” Adding “please” to a request for an autistic person (in their mind) implies a choice. If it’s something they didn’t really want to do in the first place, it’s likely they’ll just say “no” and go back to their preferred activity.

This lesson has carried into my own parenting. I rarely tell Baby Girl “no” when she’s heading toward disaster — I tell her to “Stop.” It’s concrete and immediate, and so far, it works.

3. Grandmas are damn smart.

One of the first things you learn when you work with autistic individuals is the Premack Principle, or “Grandma’s Rule”. Premacking a child’s schedule means to start with an activity they are ambivalent about, followed by a disliked activity, followed by a like and so on. Premacking their child’s schedule is how the wise parent gets their kid through the day. We need to do “X” before we can go out and play. (See?? Grandmas.)

If you set up a storyboard about the things that will happen in an autistic person’s day with pictures, so much the better. Remember, you’re dealing with a precise individual.

4. Few autistic kids understand the concept of time.

Oh, they learn about time if you tie it to a reward – most of these kids are brilliant after all. But that intrinsic knowing that this is ten minutes and it takes that long to brush my teeth, wash my face and put on my clothes for school is almost always missing from an autistic kid.

Parents learn to “sequence,” using the Premack Principle. For example:

“First we’re going to brush our teeth, then we’re going to wash our face, and after that we’re going to get dressed.” If they start dallying on the dressing part, you’d remind them what comes next. “After you get dressed, then we’re going to eat breakfast, and then we’ll drive to school.”

It’s tiring to sequence all day long, but not as tiring as dealing with tantrums when your kid doesn’t understand why they have to stop doing whatever thing they love to do. If they know what to expect, they’re not as frightened.

Imagine how you’d feel if you had no idea how long you had to sit in a car or do something you hated – you get through activities you hate only because you know when they end.

5. Positive reinforcement fixes everything.

In #1 above, I mentioned all the sensory input bombarding an autistic person in a restaurant. This can be overcome, it just takes some work.

The wise parent undertakes the task in stages, first getting their child into the car for a short trip and reinforcing them until car rides aren’t stressful. The next stage might be stopping in to a restaurant during a non-busy time of day and sitting at the table for a few minutes. Eventually, you will work your way up to a full meal.

Whatever it is that’s important to you, break it down into small reinforceable steps and prepare to do each step many, many times.

Do you have autistic individuals in your life? Tweet me at @JennyHansenCA to share your experience!

~ Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm. Jenny also writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

© 2013 Jenny Hansen. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact me at the above links to request permission.

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