An Autism Anthropologist in Need of Help: Special Education and Autism

Jerry Webster is our newest columnist. Jerry will be serving as WP’s official Special Education expert. Here’s his first article:

I remember well the first time I heard the title of Oliver’s Sack’s book, An Anthropologist on Mars (1995.) I had seen the movie Awakening and read a couple stories from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I remember hearing that it was how a woman with autism described her experience in the neurotypical world. It was only later I discovered it was Dr. Temple Grandin.

It comes back frequently, as I am in my fifth year of teaching students on the Autism Spectrum, now in Las Vegas, Nevada. I find I spend a lot of time trying to understand how my middle school guys (all boys in my class) see and understand the world.
As well as post graduate education from Pennsylvania State University, I am also the online guide for Special Education at About.com, and read and review a lot of resources. Nevada is one of the few states that require an autism endorsement for teaching, and I have it. But I am also an anthropologist.

I’m clearly aware that the “Anthropologist on Mars” quote referred to Dr. Grandin’s experience of the neurotypical social world. She found it baffling. In interviews she did around the time of the release of Animals in Translation, I heard her say that she had no need for a primary “romantic” relationship.

I know that is not true for all people on the spectrum, especially young men on the higher functioning end of the spectrum as well as people diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. I was delighted to read the front page article http://specialed.about.com/b/2011/12/29/serendipity.htm) where I spent lots of time trolling, getting to know more about the organization and Alex, the founder.

As the special education guide for About.com, I write for special education teachers. I see my role as providing resources for the whole range of teachers, those who work in resource rooms to those who deal with students with multiple handicaps. I have noticed a lot of interest in articles I write about social skills and behavior management. I also have found that many of the books written about teaching social skills are designed for therapists in clinical settings or afterschool programs. In my situation, and classrooms like mine, there are a range of abilities. Some of my guys are able to participate in some general education classrooms with support: they have Aspergers or high functioning autism but their difficulty in dealing with the expectations of a general education classroom makes a full day impossible. Others are low functioning. There are no social skills programs that can support both groups.

It’s time to write the book. I have decided I need to address this need, using the resources I have at hand and research that has already been done. It will be a middle school curriculum with a cafeteria style organization, to equip teachers and provide a rich menu of options. It will involve emotional literacy, scripting, video modeling and video self-modeling, role playing and lots of explicit teaching, using the “teaching interactions” method from the Autism Partnership. It will also involve peer mentoring.

What I really need is feedback and suggestions from the Autism Community, from family members and those on the spectrum. I need to know what is essential, what you have done that didn’t work or seemed like a waste of time, what you wish someone had taught you.

Alex and I spoke by phone the last week of 2011, and he agreed to give me this opportunity. I’m thrilled (I’m also on the forum with my own name) to contact the community and get your input. I hope you will share based on these questions:

What was hardest for you to figure out in social settings?

What was the most helpful program or strategy that you were taught at school?

What program or strategy was meaningless, useless or just plain annoying?

What do you wish someone had taught you in terms of social skills and social interactions?

What did you learn at school about social skills that you now think is the most valuable?

What did you have to learn on your own that you wish you had some help with?

Jerry will be reading the comments. He’s looking forward to hearing your answers to these questions so please comment!

One thought on “An Autism Anthropologist in Need of Help: Special Education and Autism”

    Comments

    • IgA on February 14, 2015

      What was hardest for you to figure out in social settings?
      Why people enjoyed talking at length about unimportant subjects.

      What was the most helpful program or strategy that you were taught at school?
      Only college was good for me. I had control of course grouping and times.

      What program or strategy was meaningless, useless or just plain annoying?
      Not having adults who cared about the details and accusing me of wasting time focusing on details rather than the big picture. I cannot see the big picture until I study the details from many angles.

      What do you wish someone had taught you in terms of social skills and social interactions?
      Why it is important? Why can’t diligence on work be at least a little more important to them than liking my personality? Why do they withold cooperation and sabatoge my efforts just because they don’t like my personality? I cooperate and give full effort on projects I work on with people I don’t like. How come they can get away with poor effort but I get diminished character if I get angry about their poor cooperation? I see the social world as a mine field that is not worth the trouble. I wish I understood how to pick my battles. Everything relates to my work — any interacting I have to do seems important if it hinders my work performance.

      What did you learn at school about social skills that you now think is the most valuable?
      Repeating key words the other person says is good to let them know I am listening even if I am not looking at them.

      What did you have to learn on your own that you wish you had some help with?
      Mediating conflicts from misunderstanding. I don’t know right away their information or reactions are from bad information. That concept was never taught. I did not figure that out until I was almost 30 years old.

Leave a Reply