Today, much to the surprise and horror of some of my students, I demonstrated what unexpected behavior looks like, so they can begin to gain some perspective of what it looks like to others. I was inspired to do this after a workshop I went to yesterday, which was amazing, that was taught by an SLP who works with mostly Aspergers and Autistic folks on social reasoning and cognition. Her approach with this population is very direct and her aim is to try to teach them how to take others' perspectives and think outside of their own little bubble. It got me thinking about how many behaviors that I excuse because "oh, they're autistic - it's just the way they are". So, even though it upsets me, I put up with not being greeted when I greet my students, being yawned at as I'm starting to teach a lesson, being told "I'm bored", grabbed at, yelled at, and insulted. Today, though, I tried a different approach, with mixed results. I was working with a group of three 3rd graders, one of whom is autistic - the other two are severely language impaired. The autistic boy explicitly expressed his displeasure with my lesson by yawning loudly several times, slumping in his chair, then allowed his body to slide off his chair and onto the floor. Something inside of me railed, and once I got the student back into his seat, I decided to stop mid-stream and do a lesson from the workshop I went to yesterday. The lesson was unexpected versus expected behaviors. After a brief introduction to the students on what I meant, I proceeded to demonstrate unexpected behaviors that the austistic student does in my room on a regular basis. The sad thing is that the other two students gaped and laughed nervously, but the autistic student had no reaction. This was not what I had planned, but not being one to give up easily, I decided to reproduce his behaviors again, but this time right in his face. Success! He physically backed away from me in horror and crossed both of his index fingers in front of his body. When I asked him why he did that, he told me that he didn't like the things I was doing. "You mean it upset you?", I queried further. "Well, that's how I feel when you do unexpected things". I saw a glimmer of light. I reproduced this lesson in a more structured format for my mixed classroom of 10 4-6 grade students - some with Autism, some with other significant cognitive impairments. Again, like in the first group, my students who are lower cognitively were able to understand and express feelings related to my unexpected behaviors. Frustratingly, my autistic students, for whom this lesson is most applicable, showed very little reaction to my rantings and ravings. However, both groups of students were able to identify what I should have done and what expected behaviors look like in the classroom, but application and carryover are difficult. Clearly, this will be an ongoing process, but I felt some comfort in being able to use some terminology and phrasing to express to my students how they come across to others. I used phrasing like "I'm getting weird thoughts when you do that". What a freeing experience to be able to express to my students in an honest way about how they come across to others and what they need to do about it.
The whole idea of teaching these kids perspective taking comes from the fact that most kids just learn it, but some kids don't. Those of us with neurotypical kids take it for granted that we don't have to teach each little skill discreetly. If our kids don't learn some of the finer social lessons at home, they are in tune and motivated by the feedback they get from teachers and peers. They know that a furrowed brow means displeasure, even if it's not paired with any verbal reprimand. So out of this realization that some kids need to be taught how to take others' perspectives comes this approach of teaching social cognition and recognizing how pervasive the effects are when we do this. This fits right into my belief that it really doesn't matter if a student is doing well academically - if he can't "make it" socially, then he can't make it. I know it's a bit extreme of a statement, but I've seen way too many people who are "book smart", and are successful by most people's standards, but cannot relate to others because of social ineptness. So then, how successful are they? You can only get so far in life without being able to network appropriately. I love the terminology that Michelle Garcia Winner uses, like "social software" and "social algebra", which really really are pretty accurate depictions of what some of us are born with and what others of us have to work so diligently to achieve.