What to Teach High-Functioning Autistics

There is a a review of the studies on high-functioning autism (HFA) in the schools that basically comes to the conclusion that more research needs to be done. Of that I have no doubt. As a substitute teacher who prefers taking special education classes, I have seen students literally across the spectrum, from those who could not be anywhere but a self-contained special education classroom just for them (and many who are there simply to give their parents a break) to students that you wonder why they aren’t in a regular class to those in regular classes and just receiving additional services.

Many secondary students with HFA are often not served in self-contained special education classes and may be perceived as difficult, unmotivated or socially awkward. In such cases, when students’ needs are not addressed, they may not be as academically successful as they could potentially be. This could lead to more problems as they exit secondary schools, such as a decreased likelihood to participate in post-secondary education, obtain/maintain meaningful employment and fewer career prospects.

I know when I was in elementary through high school that I was considered difficult, unmotivated/lazy, and socially awkward. And I certainly was not as academically successful as I potentially could have been. In college especially, I did very well in classes which excited me–ranging from my molecular biology and biochemistry classes, organic chemistry classes, and applied and environmental microbiology class, to Introduction to Philosophy and economics, the latter two of which directed me into the decision to go into the humanities–but not so well in any class I either didn’t find interesting or which I didn’t see any purpose in taking (I suspect those two areas overlapped).

While I most certainly did participate in post-secondary education–and did so with a vengeance–I have been unable to obtain/maintain meaningful employment and I have found very few (none, actually) career opportunities. So I certainly agree that more needs to be done. Of course, nobody was going to do anything for me in the 1970s-1980’s, when I was in school, since nobody knew there was anything unusual about me, except my high intelligence. Smart but lazy, gifted but argumentative–that was me. Except, it wasn’t really laziness (I was always working on my projects). My argumentativeness would now be called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, especially since I don’t really recognize anyone’s authority over me (treating everyone as equals all the time is a feature of autism, too).

Autistics need to be taught social skills in the same way all children have to be taught math or reading. Neither math nor reading are natural, so they have to be taught directly, and they have a hard time sticking (which is why few people can write well and why spelling errors persist) and are the two areas more likely to involve “learning disabilities.” For autistics, there’s nothing “natural” about social skills, though such skills are in fact natural for non-autistics and thus the details are very easily acquired by them. We do not acquire them so easily. We often see social rules as arbitrary and we thus don’t see why we should take them so seriously–or why anyone else should.

Any teaching of social skills thus have to take these facts into consideration. It cannot be assumed that autistics can learn social skills the same as non-autistics. In fact, when it comes to learning social skills and cultural traditions and such, autistics come closest to exemplifying the otherwise completely wrong blank slate theory of the mind. A theory completely untrue for the average person turns out to be a reasonable assumption with which to start when it comes to teaching autistics social and life skills. Everything must be explicitly stated, everything must be explicitly taught.

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