School is fraught with social and academic challenges for students of any age. Kids with special needs such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are confronted with unique hurdles in primary and secondary school. The way they are taught to handle these difficulties has lasting impact on their personal and professional success throughout life.
The Center for Disease Control’s Autism & Developmental Disability Monitoring Network estimates that 1 in 68 children across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups has an ASD diagnosis. This number represents a 30% increase from the 2008 estimate. Many researchers suggest that this spike in diagnoses is the result of better diagnostic tools and more nuanced understanding of ASD, and is not caused by increased incidence of the disorder. People who might have been diagnosed with mental disorders or learning delays in a previous era are instead diagnosed with ASD. Increased understanding of ASD is spreading from the medical community to the broader public, and the education system is one setting where better knowledge of ASD can have an incredibly positive impact on individual lives.
Difficulties Faced by Those with ASD
ASD is a developmental disability characterized by deficits in emotional reciprocity and difficulty with relationship-building and maintenance. People with ASD generally have a hard time understanding the emotions and social cues expressed by others. Nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language tend to be especially difficult to read for those on the spectrum, and children with ASD have a difficult time engaging in imaginative play with their peers. Written and spoken language often pose challenges as well, especially when the information conveyed is abstract or conceptual.
In addition to communication difficulties, people with ASD often develop highly-fixated interests, rely on rigid routines, and resist changes in behavior patterns and circumstances. Other common symptoms include hypersensitivity to certain types of sensory stimulation, as well as repetitive motions and physical tics.
Autism spectrum disorders are caused by various circumstances of brain structure and chemistry that affect the ability to socialize, empathize, and process abstract or contextual communication. ASD is not a mental disorder or learning disability, though it is often mistaken for one. This general misunderstanding of ASD is exacerbated by the fact that about 10% of people with ASD are also diagnosed with Down Syndrome or another chromosomal or neurological disorder.
To further muddy the situation, the language surrounding ASD is itself evolving. Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, was once considered a separate diagnosis. With the release of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual V (DSM-V), Asperger Syndrome is no longer a separate diagnosis; it is only a reference point on the autism spectrum.
The wide variety of symptoms expressed by those with ASD, along with shifting language and the perceived associations between ASD and other disorders, make it difficult for peers, teachers, and even parents of people with ASD to fully understand or sympathize with those working through the challenges.
ASD in The Classroom
Despite the social and emotional issues caused by ASD, intellectual capability seems to be unaffected; nearly half the people diagnosed with ASD also display higher-than-average intellectual capability. Nevertheless, a traditional school environment is not an ideal environment for students on the spectrum. Several factors contribute to serious difficulties for students with ASD in a classroom environment:
Reading from textbooks and listening to lectures are not the best ways for students with ASD to learn, yet these formats are by far the most common in traditional classrooms.
Switching between subjects, teachers, and classrooms throughout the day is distracting and anxiety-inducing for students with ASD who have volatile reactions to changes in routine.
Socializing at school, both in the classroom and out of it, is much more difficult for students on the spectrum. Expecting someone with ASD to conform to the social norms of a typical K-12 school leads to friction with peers and authority figures, which ultimately takes away from time and energy spent on learning activities.
Organizing a classroom as a grid of desks that restricts students’ movement and lacks designated areas for specific activities creates a difficult environment for students with ASD, who rely on spatial cues and strong routines for daily success.
The typical social and educational situations that arise in school just won’t work for many students on the spectrum. This combination of factors often comes together to make school an environment that terrifies rather than supports students with ASD.
Building A Good Environment for Students On The Spectrum
Students with ASD are often mislabelled by peers and even teachers as having a learning disability or mental disorder. This misunderstanding leads many students with ASD to be placed in special education classrooms, which are likely to be even less conducive to learning for the socially awkward but intellectually capable student with ASD. Even though most classrooms aren’t ideally suited for students on the autism spectrum, there are ways for teachers and parents to make learning easier for these vulnerable students without isolating them from their peers.
One of the most vital steps in providing a supporting education environment for students with ASD is to understand each student’s individual needs. ASD manifests itself in a wide variety of symptoms with different levels of severity. Federal law requires U.S. school districts to have an official process for creating Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students in their special education programs. Parents collaborate in the creation of IEPs, which offers a great opportunity to help educators understand and adapt to the needs of students with ASD.
Visual Learning Aids Work for ASD Students
Evidence indicates that people with ASD learn better when they have visual aids and concrete activities as part of their educational routines. Research shows that people with ASD have better than normal visual/spatial processing, and even sharper vision than those not on the spectrum.
Some of the most compelling evidence that visual teaching is effective for students with ASD comes from the TEACCH© Autism Program, pioneered at the University of North Carolina, which has provided visual educational tools and programs for students with ASD since the 1960s. Various research studies have shown the TEACCH methodologies to be successful, and there are reams of anecdotal evidence supporting the general popularity and efficacy of visual teaching for ASD students.
Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism in the 1950s and has become a famous and outspoken advocate for those with ASD, wrote about her own visual thinking style:
“My mind is similar to an Internet search engine that searches for photographs. I use language to narrate the photo-realistic pictures that pop up in my imagination… All my thinking is associative and not linear. To form concepts, I sort pictures into categories similar to computer files. To form the concept of orange, I see many different orange objects, such as oranges, pumpkins, orange juice and marmalade.”
The Power of Visual Storytelling
One particularly compelling piece of research examined whether visual aids could help children with ASD develop a stronger theory of mind, or a better ability to understand the mental states of other people. The study showed that children with ASD were able to recognize that “thought bubbles represent thought, thought bubbles can be used to infer an unknown reality, thoughts can be different, and thoughts can be false.”
This is a powerful idea: that visual representations can improve an autistic person’s ability to comprehend what is going on in someone else’s head. In 1994, a book called Comic Strip Conversations by Carol Gray explored this idea even further, using illustrated storylines with clear visual explanations of how each character was feeling and why they were taking certain actions. Additional research by John Swettenham confirmed that visual and concrete representations made it easier for kids with ASD to understand what was going on in the minds of others. In 1996, Swettenham wrote:
“Conceiving of the mind as a camera helps children with autism acquire an alternative to a theory of mind.”
Modern Visual Storytelling Tools for Students with ASD
Technology in the classroom allows for more multisensory, highly-individualized educational experiences. The widespread and cost-effective availability of tablets, computers, and cameras has spurred a proliferation of interactive, visuospatial educational techniques. This is fantastic for students with special needs, especially those with ASD.
Video as Educational Tool
Video creation takes the concepts explored in Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations to a whole new level, bringing the conversations off the page and adding movement and sound to the stories.
One compelling way that video has been used to help students with ASD is through the technique of video self modeling. This process helps students with ASD internalize their own capabilities and potential through repeated viewing of video recordings of their own success in particular activities. The basic steps are:
Target a particular behavior that is difficult for the student.
Video record the student successfully performing that action in a structured environment.
Regularly show the video to the student, allowing them to see themselves succeeding at the activity that may have seemed difficult or impossible.
By watching themselves succeed on film, students on the spectrum learn to appreciate their own potential and act on it in spite of momentary emotions or inhibitions.
Using repeated, visual storylines in video format to promote success in targeted activities has an incredible amount of potential in the personal and educational pursuits of people with ASD.
Learning Through Animated Filmmaking
Animated filmmaking is a powerful classroom tool. Teachers can make video lessons that students consume at their own pace, with as much repetition as needed for the lessons to become clear. Students prone to distraction can put on headphones and focus on the videos, eliminating classroom distractions and reducing the possibility of overstimulation.
Allowing students with ASD to make their own animated videos adds another dimension to the educational power of visual aids. Filmmaking alleviates common classroom struggles and promotes a richer educational experience for students with ASD in several ways, namely:
Making videos gives the student visual, auditory, and even tactile stimuli by allowing her to control what’s happening on the screen and in the story, and allowing her to rearrange scenes, dialog, and visual elements. The multisensory experience of making a video is a powerful pedagogical tool.
Giving the student control over pace and repetition of material allows her to learn at her own speed.
Controlling the actions and communications of multiple animated characters on screen helps students develop an understanding that there is more than one perspective on any given situation. This hearkens back to the comic strip conversations strategy that has proven so effective.
Animated filmmaking tools tap into the same theories that make other visual/spatial focused methodologies like the TEACCH program so effective. Animated filmmaking offers highly-structured, visual lessons that can be experienced in a stable, controlled educational environment.
The benefits aren’t just educational. For students who have a difficult time communicating, relating with their peers and making themselves understood, a visual storytelling tool is incredibly liberating. This outlet for creativity becomes a method for communicating joys and frustrations that might not emerge otherwise.
As Dr. Alisa Wolf, Founder of Actors for Autism said:
“For students on the spectrum animated filmmaking is an escape from reality — an escape from all the therapy sessions and interventions. They can create their own world, opening a whole new area of experience.”
GoAnimate for Schools
GoAnimate has already received a great deal of positive feedback about the success of our animated video making platform as an educational tool, and we’re continuing to work on making it the best possible experience for students and teachers. A few popular features include:
Text-to-speech function that allows all students to express their opinion, without the need to record audio.
Intuitive drag-and-drop menus that are easy for students of all levels to use.
Libraries of props and backgrounds that let students build an entire world within their video creations.
Custom Character Creator that gives students control over the appearance of every character in their film. Students can create characters that they personally identify with to help them engage more fully with the storylines of their films.
Try It For Yourself!
GoAnimate For Schools is free to try, and subscriptions for educators work for most school budgets. Click to get started!