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Student Examines Best Practices for Teaching Students on the Autism Spectrum

English course helps senior critique related literature and prepare for education career

Julia Fama ’19

Sacred Heart University senior Julia Fama, who intends to be a teacher, examined the writings of autism activist and author Temple Grandin during research on the best methods for teaching children who are on the autism spectrum.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes autism spectrum disorder as one that affects communication and behavior. Though diagnosis can come at any age, it is termed a developmental disorder because symptoms generally become evident at about age 2.

It is a spectrum disorder because there is a wide range of severity and types of symptoms, according to the NIMH. Children diagnosed with the disorder usually have difficulty with communication and social skills when interacting with other people. They also have obsessive interests and show repetitive behaviors. The NIMH explains that these symptoms “hurt the person’s ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life.”

Fama, 21, of Greenwich, is a double-major in education and English, with a minor in creative writing. Upon graduation, she hopes to teach English in a secondary school.

Before Fama began research for her final paper in English professor Cara Erdheim Kilgallen’s reading and writing disability discourse class, she attended a SHU lecture where Rhea Paul, chair of the speech-language program, spoke about including students with autism in the mainstream classroom. “This sparked my initial research question for my paper,” Fama said. She raised the question: How can keeping students with autism in the mainstream classroom be done effectively?

Fama decided to explore Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Grandin, who also is a professor, has spoken candidly about her personal struggles with the neurological disorder.

Citing examples from Grandin’s experience, Fama said often students with autism have extended fixations. “There’s a way to integrate the fixations in a lesson so students can grasp what’s being taught,” Fama said. “That’s a way to get them engaged…it takes some planning, but when it’s planned out, it can be seamless.”

And that’s the point, Fama said. Students are intuitive and can sense when something isn’t natural. “You want the lesson plans and the teaching to be seamless. You don’t want to come off as treating the children any differently.”

Fama’s paper served as research for her career in education as well as a literacy critique for her disabilities discourse class.

“Inclusion is important not only for students with autism, but for the whole class,” Fama said. “This way, students of all mental capabilities are aware that not everyone is like them. If we exclude students from real-world experiences, they’re not excelling to the best of their abilities.”

Students with and without autism develop social skills when they interact with each other. They learn from each other, Fama said.

Encouraging group activities and interaction with other students is part of the teacher’s job, as well as ensuring this type of learning is structured, she explained. She said she learned students with autism work well with routines and schedules and also learned from Paul that students with autism react well to a classroom decorated with posters and signs explaining what’s in store for them that day. Once an activity is done, the visual aid can be removed, Fama wrote in her paper, and that lets students know they are done with one task and are moving on to the next.

Fama plans to apply the knowledge she gained from her research in her future classroom.