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, 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 where I spent lots of time trolling, getting to know more about the organization and Alex, the founder.

As the special education guide for, 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!

14 thoughts on “An Autism Anthropologist in Need of Help: Special Education and Autism”


    • 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.

    • Writergirl53 on March 7, 2015

      The question of what was hardest is a very difficult one, because this depended largely on age for me. When I was little it was things that were fairly simple like learning to make eye contact, and maturing out of some of my more impulsive behaviours which set me apart from neurotypical children. Right now, I think it would have to be being able to tell what others think of me.

      To be perfectly honest, I was in a lot of special programs, and although I’m sure some of it must have helped, I never really found any of it very helpful.

      A lot of programs I have been in have felt a bit demeaning and condescending in a way that has largely put me off of such programs now. The problem comes when, as you said, there is a wide range of students, educators tend to favour those at the lower end of the spectrum, and teach things that are simple enough, to make many higher functioning Aspies feel talked down to, especially, as these educators often unwittingly try and behave in a manner that is “soothing” but actually makes these students feel like small children who have had a tantrum when they get upset, or even when they aren’t upset, still speaking to them like a child. Some examples of this would be calling us “sweetie”, if we are over twelve and high-functioning that feels demeaning, or asking us often if we understand what things mean, (most of us always know what you mean in the literal sense). Sorry, that one comes from a lot of negative experiences.

      I wish somebody had taught me how to read what people think of me. I often have no idea, and as a result, when it comes to NTs, even my friends, I feel constantly insecure as to whether or not they like me, or are just tolerating me, and whether I have unwittingly done something to annoy them.

      I’m not sure what I learned in terms of social skills in classes, but one thing that was nice for me was that at one of the schools I was at that was all Aspie, they had a girl’s club, for all of the girls, (it was required, and I think, that even though it was because there were way more boys than girls, there should have been a club for the boys, too,) but anyway, it helped bring me together with a lot of girls at the school, including my best friend, and marked the beginning of me finally beginning to hang out with other girls, instead of primarily guys.

      I’ve had to observe and learn on my own what is and is not socially acceptable to talk about,how to listen more than talk, (because most of what I have to say most people aren’t particularly interested in hearing), and how other girls dress.

    • Roadkill1953 on April 23, 2015

      Was in special ed since 1979. First grade, vision tracking problems I was told, had to do “finger following” exercises.
      1, I don’t think i have really figured out anything yet
      2, none
      3, left high school almost failing 10th grade math, graduated with 10th grade math. forced to use over complex drawn out equations, that made no sense or were confusing. In college i was in the top of the math class, could solve my way, and the professor was always asking why I didn’t use a calculator.
      4, everything
      5, nothing
      6, almost everything,
      Vision tracking problems put me into special ed, didn’t know about auditory processing disorder until my 30′s.
      Every problem was “my imagination”
      My “imaginary” headaches are still with my since the 70′s
      My “imaginary” physical problems were corrected in 1990, surgery for femoral antiversion , leg and bone cut in 3 places, rods and staples, etc,. Was always accused of trying to imitate Charlie Chaplin, didn’t even know who he was at the time.
      My spec ed teacher had tenure, a year after I went to high school she was given a regular class, that class I heard had to go for counseling afterwards. My childhood was a mess, if they had an aspie diagnosis at the time and a competent teacher, it may not have been so bad.
      Always in trouble for lack of eye contact,
      Saw shrink to “learn how to make friends” didn’t know why at the time.
      Every time I have a flashback or memory of certain situations, they are almost always traits of aspergers, or apd.

      I could write pages.
      Good luck on your research

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      Have become interested in education and autism and also anthropology.

      I am NT (ish)!

      I have had some success working with autistic children in main stream education and run external clubs developing play and social skills for the school population

      Have wondered should I be suggesting to teachers kids I think COULD be on the spectrum? Is this healthy? Worked with a couple for sure and think it is still under diagnosed with people slipping through net for various reasons (have ex boyfriend I think this is the case with, struggling in adult life and terrified of the label and stigma).

      I guess if people get help that helps then diagnosis helps BUT if they are sign posted to the wrong thing it doesn’t e.g a programme in which they are segregated from what they would like, labelled early, not getting individually appropriate input.

      People are so different with such different personalities and experience how do we improve INDIVIDUAL experience?

      I think the stigma around “autism” is a problem. Need to look at individuals as capable. Reductionst diagnoses aren’t good where real people are concerned. Autism includes so many ways of being.

      I have found these things have helped working with kids:

      Explanation of consequence with games designed to demonstrate it (e.g if you catch the ball like this this happens, if you do this this happens and then repetition of this in social environment. Game needs to be adapted to individuals play style and interests)

      Have lit small fires with kids outside this is a very good way to see controlled fire and learn it is hot and can be dangerous and what can happen if someone does something silly (not suitable for all children but quite suitable for many. Kids are given a small amount of kindling and a flint and steel and learn fire safety and social interaction around fire, rules of fire).

      Encouragement to use memory for social setting, make this fun!

      Use art activities and have a chat then so kids aren’t having to focus on faces all the time. Can get good results then.

      Inclusion of facts/interests of that child so they can engage and keep interested.

      Clear understanding of social rules and why they matter in social settings.
      Ways to demonstrate how these can change e.g. Different people set different boundaries.

      Skilled use of facial expression (clear communication with face and understanding of practitioner when to look away), explanation of how you CAN use your face to communicate even though some of the kids I work with CHOOSE not to.

      I usually work in a play setting with children and have had some successful results. I don’t have formal training but have trained myself with help lines, a charity and reading. Definitely seem to have a knack for it and find that if I’m working with a group, special educational needs or autistic children in general needs I can develop a very good rapport and gain a trusting connection. I have seen several children flourish and staff I work with have noticed too.

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      I have had training working with children and challenging behaviour though not autism specific.

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      Also for one autistic child who had really distressing melt downs. I just had to develop trust and work with him around his specific sensitivity (his hands and texture/temperature control) and help him how to avoid triggers. Time to discover what these things are and how they can affect a classroom/playsetting helps. And this is different for every child.

      He also totally transformed when the school phoned his mum to give him a lesson structure. Melt downs disappeared.

      Worked with him to explain that changes can still occur even with a plan.

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      Kids know they are different around this and sometimes will work very hard to cover up sensitivities so as not to feel different.

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      I work with young children 4-11 but intervention at this age is CRUCIAL I think and opens up their whole life.

    • SwiftSky on July 30, 2017

      Know this doesn’t answer your questions but am very interested in educational programmes and early interventions/help that can change a persons life path.

    • Langers1 on August 11, 2017

      I think the most important thing by far is to never underestimate the importance of explicit detail. It is a waste of time to assume that we will “get it” even if you force our hands through the motions, each detail needs to be stated. For instance, “pick what you want” is ambiguous, I pick what I want (in my head) now what?/who cares? Instead each step is important, “decide which of these you would like…pick the object you chose up…take it back to your desk…set it on your desk…exc.” After a couple of times you could ask me to do the next step (I will if I remember it) and eventually I’ll be able to understand what is meant by “pick what you want”. That always worked better then being grabbed and force through motions, I hated that, I had an aversion to touch and learning something when you’re shut down is very difficult.

    • AnnaDexter on March 21, 2020

      This chapter reviews educational strategies and legal policies impacting effective schooling for children, youth, and young adults. Emphasis is on the classroom manifestation of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and how general education teachers can effectively facilitate learning. Within early school years, the importance of positive student-teacher relationships (STRs) in the face of challenging behaviors is discussed, including ways to build positive STRs.

    • KalebRamirez2020 on May 15, 2023


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