“A draft of cold air can be enough to disrupt the concentration”
20 Oct 2021
Colored pens, bright light: Many factors can put children with autism spectrum disorders off their stride. A new add-on course of study – one of a kind in Germany – should now help fully trained teachers to better accompany their educational development.
Aimed at students of all teacher training disciplines, the add-on course “Teacher Education in the Context of Autism Spectrum Disorders” (P-ASS) starts at LMU Munich. Professor Reinhard Markowetz, holder of the Chair of behavioural disorders, autism and inclusive education, talked to us about the irritation of colored pencils, tests done on tablets and the need for clear assignments.
Professor Markowetz, what challenges confront schoolchildren with autism spectrum disorders?
Reinhard Markowetz: The first thing that often makes life at school so difficult for these children and youngsters is the various perception-related problems they experience. Some are irritated by the sight of a desk full of colored ballpoint pens. Others lose concentration because of a pungent odor, bright lights or heat. Cold can also be a huge distraction for these pupils – especially now, during the pandemic, where the windows have to be opened every 20 minutes. This is compounded by the fact that many find it hard to put into words exactly what is distracting them and keeping them from learning. A lot of these youngsters also have problems with social behavior. School is supposed to be a communal undertaking in which children find their place and can contribute. For autists, however, precisely that is often very difficult. And especially in the context of elementary schooling – which, I am glad to see, these days uses lots of materials and encourages children to choose their own activities – autistic boys and girls often have problems fitting in with group work scenarios or independently going to the cupboard and choosing and organizing their own assignments.
The fact that every fifth pupil with an autism spectrum disorder has been removed from class at least once shows how difficult it is for teachers to respond appropriately.
And what challenges confront the people who teach them?
Because of the irritations that autistic children perceive as very hefty, their behavior can be unusual at times. They walk around the classroom during lessons, waving their arms – to find some way of dealing with their inner agitation – stereotypically with their fingers in front of their eyes. Or they might put their hands up all the time and then give unsuitable answers. In addition, some find it hard to put themselves in the position of others, which is quickly misconstrued as them being cold and distant. For teachers, too, it can be disconcerting when some children can’t look you in the eye. So, disruptions quickly arise in lessons and can occasionally flare up into aggressive behavior. The fact that every fifth pupil with an autism spectrum disorder has been removed from class at least once shows how difficult it is for teachers to respond appropriately.
We would really need educators who are used to working with autistic children and youngsters to have a greater presence in schools.
What support have teachers so far received in their dealings with autistic children?
Here in Bavaria, we have the Mobiler Sonderpädagogischer Dienst, MSD (Mobile Special-Needs Educational Service), which also has an “Autism” branch (MSD-A). Under this system, special-needs teachers visit the schools and advise teachers on how to work with autistic children. That is a very good thing, essentially, but I don’t think it is enough. We would really need educators who are used to working with autistic children and youngsters to have a greater presence in schools – above all people who understand why they behave in such unusual ways and how to support them and encourage their schooling.
In what ways can the new add-on study course that begins on Monday at LMU help?
This is the only course in Germany that targets not only future special-needs educators but students across all expressions of teacher training – from special schools to elementary, secondary and high schools to vocational schools. Why? Because children with autism spectrum disorders are today taught at all these schools. And we were overwhelmed by the response: For the very first intake, 65 students across all these disciplines immediately signed up for the course, for which there are no restrictions on admission. Another unique feature of the course is that students can familiarize themselves with this special body of pupils from a very early stage. Even teachers who are already working in schools can sign up.
There is indeed a slight increase in the number of youngsters who are affected.
Has the number of people with autism spectrum disorders increased? Or is it simply easier to diagnose this condition today?
The pediatric and autism competence centers to which parents often turn to try to explain the behavior of their children are very cautious about making diagnoses. Given the very broad spread of variations, we tend these days to talk not about “autism” but about “autism spectrum disorders”. There is indeed a slight increase in the number of youngsters who are affected. And one main reason is undoubtedly that the guidance and tools available to identify behaviors along the autism spectrum are becoming ever more granular and precise. Having said that, environmental variables that affect human development and interfere with natural maturing processes are also under discussion.
Autists currently account for one percent of the total population, although experts estimate that the actual figure could already be as high as three percent. Reflecting these prevalence rates, somewhere between 10,000 and 17,000 children on the autism spectrum are currently being taught in Bavarian schools.
How can we make it easier for these children and youngsters to learn?
The people who attend our add-on study course learn a whole series of “autism-sensitive measures”. Picture cards, for example, can make it easier to communicate, and materials that visualize activity sequences such as washing your hands can make it easier to get the children to do this. Headphones can protect the children from noise and distractions. Signals, clocks and defined schedules can structure the passage of time, while carpets and curtains that demarcate certain areas give structure to the classrooms and learning facilities, all of which helps the children to concentrate. In sports classes, children with motor problems should be allowed to skip certain exercises. Many of them are grateful for clearly defined assignments rather than free-choice activities and are happy to find ‘refuge areas’ and opportunities to relax. Moreover, children and youngsters with autism spectrum disorders are entitled to have the disadvantages caused by their condition offset – for example by writing tests on tablets instead of with a fountain pen.
We want to give our students a whole ‘backpack’ full of things they can do to give children the best possible individual support with their learning and, ultimately, to be able to teach in an autism-sensitive way.