I work in a middle school setting where we have a wide variety of disabilities among our student who receive special education. Our school provides an elective class for social skill instruction for students who are all on the autism spectrum; I provide consultative services to this teacher and visit the classroom often. A few of the students have speech-language IEPs and I spend additional time with them outside of this classroom.
Several weeks into the school year, the classroom teacher planned a lesson that focused on sensitivity to other disabilities; this was done to help address the needs of one of the students in this class who was also legally blind. The teacher for the visually impaired came and showed the class Braille, talked about the challenges of visual deficits, and had her visually impaired student demonstrate using the cane to help walk through the hallways and classroom. It was tough for these students to attend the entire time, but they all appeared interested and asked questions.
About a month later, one of my favorite students with autism came to see me for a session in my classroom. We had been working on a describing and vocabulary task and I used the word "blond". She wasn't familiar with the term and I proceeded to describe it and show her someone in the hallway who had blond hair. As part of our word/spelling play, I showed her that it was different from the word "blind", and she appeared to not know that word either. I thought I was refreshing her memory by telling her that blind meant unable to see and to remind her that someone in her social skills class was, in fact, blind.
She looked blankly at me, and when I told her the boy's name her reaction tickled me. She appeared totally startled that this classmate was blind and asked me in a whispered voice, "Does he know?" and then "Can we tell the teacher this?"
I learned the valuable lesson that just because students with autism appear to be attending and interacting with classmates, what I take for granted is common knowledge may not be as obvious as I think. It may not have even been observed at all, and may require explicit teaching as part of social awareness instruction.
Kim McCallister is a speech-language pathologist in Beaverdam, VA.
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