At TpT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Jenn from Teach Love Autism, a middle school autism teacher who’s dedicated to helping students build independence in the classroom.
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What drove you to become a special education teacher?
Initially, I went to college to be an early childhood and elementary teacher. When I started my first teaching job, the inclusion movement began and I found myself being an elementary teacher with very little knowledge of how to serve my students with disabilities. This sparked an interest and encouraged me to pursue my Masters’ in special education. I fell in love with the challenges of using different strategies and differentiation to teach students of all abilities.
How has your background shaped your teaching practice?
My background in early childhood really helped me to focus on differentiation. I learned how to make materials that meet students at multiple levels of abilities and it applied itself perfectly for working with students with disabilities. I also have a strong belief in age-appropriate materials for students no matter what their cognitive abilities are and that’s really been a driving force behind the creation of most of my materials in the last two years.
What are some common misconceptions about teaching students with autism? What are some ways that educators can counteract common misconceptions?
One of the most common misconceptions about students with autism is that they are all the same. A favorite quote of mine states, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” They each have their own phenomenal talents which need to be celebrated, not just in April, but every month. Educators can counteract these misconceptions by becoming more informed about autism through books, journals, YouTube videos, and more. There are a ton of great resources that are perfect for sharing in the classroom with students.
What steps have you taken to promote autism awareness and acceptance?
In my school and community, I have hosted several events with colleagues to help educate others such as parents, teachers, and other professionals. These events have included informational workshops, trainings with parents, and sensory-friendly activities for individuals with disabilities. My class has participated for several years in a talent show that highlights the abilities of my students at a local university. Most recently, I participated in the Tim Tebow Foundation event called Night to Shine, which was a life changing experience that provides a prom just for individuals with disabilities to be the star for the evening!
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to a teacher who is trying to raise awareness about autism?
I’d advise any teacher trying to promote acceptance to ask themselves what more they can do to make every student in their class feel at home. A great place to reach out for help is the special education teachers in their buildings and in the social media communities. I have learned so much from fellow teachers in the Instagram community, especially those working with individuals with autism. Never be afraid to ask questions, because otherwise, you’ll never get the answers!
For an educator who is looking to raise awareness about autism and promote acceptance, how do you suggest they do so?
One way I have suggested doing this with teachers that I have worked with is through read-alouds and YouTube videos. There are some amazing read-alouds that are written in a way that other students can understand but also create some great thought provoking discussion. YouTube has some good informational videos for older students that may want to understand more about what it’s like for someone with autism. These are both great ways to promote acceptance and share at any time of the year.
Some educators feel ill-equipped to talk about autism with their students. What advice would you give to those teachers? Do you have any tips to help them have conversations about inclusivity and acceptance with their students?
I think that honesty is best. Perhaps a person with little knowledge about autism should share that with their students, but then use that as a natural teaching situation where they can all learn together. Don’t be afraid to show your students that you seek knowledge too and how you go about getting it.
What steps can teachers, administrators, and parents take to build communities that are supportive of students with autism — particularly outside of the classroom?
A very powerful step in building a community that is supportive of students with autism is finding ways to make sure they are educated in what they can do to include those individuals. Offer to have events that are sensory-friendly or centered around those students’ interests. Provide local businesses with information on what they can do to support those individuals when they are in their establishment such as a quiet place to go when they feel overwhelmed.
Most schools have shifted to a distance learning model. What are some tips and advice you have for teachers and parents of students with autism? How can they best support students during this time?
Make sure that you’re providing those students with visuals, a schedule and routine because most individuals with autism thrive off of the consistency and might struggle with why they are doing school at home. Providing controlled choices so students can feel in control yet still completing their assignments based on the teachers’ instructions (i.e. do you want to do your math or science work next?). Lastly, find a balance between getting assignments finished and taking breaks. Students with autism often struggle with communication and asking for a break may be difficult for them so be sure to tell families it is okay to take it easy if their child is feeling overwhelmed.
Are there additional resources, articles, books, or podcasts that you’d recommend teachers look up when addressing diversity?
Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, I Wish My Teacher Knew by Kyle Schwartz, and Teaching Tolerance Podcast.
If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from your story and your experience, what would it be?
Just because you may not have much knowledge about autism now does not mean you can’t learn. I started on a completely different path in my teaching career then where I am today, and you just never know what a little insight can do to change your perspective and purpose.
Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile? 🙂
I love watching my students succeed at learning a new skill that is meaningful to their lives.
I am a teacher with 13 years of experience in regular, alternative, and special education. During my time in the classroom, I have taught almost every grade from Pre-K to 12th grade in many different subject areas with many different groups of children. I fell in love with working with students with disabilities and most recently found myself teaching students with autism. My students inspire me every day and inspired me to start Teach Love Autism to help other teachers and make their classrooms a place where learning, independence, and overall growth are a priority.