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Blog: Notes from an Autistic Paraeducator

By Andrew Coltrin, A.K.A Partly Robot

I am an adult diagnosed autistic person. My day job is working as a special education paraprofessional for a large school district in the United States. It’s not easy to find the right balance of support and modifications for each student. Every student is different and their needs constantly change. I’ve seen a lot of things that work, and a lot of things that should work, but are implemented badly. With that in mind, here are a few basics that can set students up for success:

School staff who make the student feel like they are wanted in the classroom

Too often, I see teachers and staff who are resentful of the extra work that goes along with having a student with disabilities in the classroom. Yes, extra work is hard, but kids can definitely tell when the adults don’t want them around. Living with a disability means a student has to work extra hard in many areas just to keep up. If the adults aren’t willing to do the work to make students feel welcome and wanted, they are not likely to put in the effort to do their best learning.

A classroom environment that isn’t too busy or too full of obstacles

I cannot count how many times I have found it difficult to work with a student simply because it is hard for me to physically move around in the space. Classrooms tend to have a lot of things in them. I’m not just talking about floor space but also visual space (and sometimes even sound space). It can be very hard to focus on the current activity if the visual and spatial environment is cluttered with items that are used at other times for other activities. I know this is a big ask. Space is at a premium in our classrooms and the curricula for content areas include a lot of great signage and manipulatives. I had the power to double the square footage of the classroom, I would. But in the real world, try to be more mindful of the visual focus and movement needs of students. Having all the materials out and visible all the time can be quite overwhelming. A room too tightly packed with tables and shelves can be hard to navigate for someone with mobility issues. Think of ways to prepare the environment and the work spaces so that students can be able to do their best work without unnecessary visual, spatial, and auditory obstacles.

An understanding that some students with disabilities need recovery time, not just extra time

Extra time on assignments is a fairly common accommodation, but it often comes at the wrong time. Cognitive functioning is one of the highest energy consuming activities humans do. Students with disabilities who may have to expend extra energy just managing the motor skills or the executive functioning to be able to get to their desks might find themselves exhausted at the moment a class learning activity starts. As a result, students can have trouble processing instructions related to the new activity. They might not be able to manage their materials, or find them. They might feel instantly discouraged and perform poorly at tasks that they could otherwise do if they had enough recovery time before they started. Frontloading extra time accommodations at the beginning of learning activities and assessments can be much more effective because it gives the student a chance to recharge and be fully ready for high energy consuming cognitive tasks.

In the end, I think the attitude toward implementation is as important as the accommodation itself.

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