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A semester at a time, a student at a time

Posted Dec 15 2012 12:46pm

An old friend of mine is a retired high school principal; I’ll call him “Jim.” Jim has been enjoying a second career as an adjunct professor of history at a community college.  He loves his job; he loves his students. Like most community college classrooms, Jim’s mix of students is very diverse: recent high school graduates, immigrants, older people going back for new training, seniors learning new subjects. And in the last few years, there is a new crop of student that has sprung up: the student with autism and intellectual disabilities.

In the last ten years, the number of students on the autism spectrum has grown astronomically. Whether this is due to environmental factors, genetics, or the broadening of the autism spectrum, the outcome is the same: more students coming up through the schools and soon to be entering college and the workforce.

At the beginning of a recent term, Jim was given a letter indicating that a particular student of his had certain disabilities, but only mentioned that he would need extended time in testing; no other guidance. He was not told that in this class of 30 extremely differently performing students, that he would be having a student with a fairly significant disability like autism.

This particular student had both social and communication deficits, mostly about regulating his impulses and boundaries. These challenges manifested themselves in his class performance and assignments, which were often three times as long as they were supposed to be. “When he first handed his papers in, Jim said, “he would write everything he knew about the subject. He wouldn’t get to the question until the very end. He’d hand in six pages if I asked for two, single-spaced, one entire paragraph.” Jim’s solution was to work paper-by-paper, and sentence-by-sentence with this student. Jim said, “A lot of professors would say, ‘they don’t belong in college.’” Needless to say, Jim does not agree.

In September he worried that this student wouldn’t be able to accomplish an oral report in front of the class. Of course the student was reluctant. He spoke way too loud and never looked at the other students. “He was compelled, when I called on him, to bring everything in that he knew of the subject.” When that happened, Jim would ask him a series of questions to bring him to focus more quickly on the issue at hand. He coached him in class, but quietly, sensitively, and respectfully. Any time this student spoke to someone,” Jim said, “he would turn his head 90 degrees away.” Or he would have difficulty with responding appropriately to the material. With one particular assigned historical novel, the student came to class without having done the paper. The book had effected him so profoundly that he couldn’t manage or contain his feelings. Jim was afraid that the rest of the class would not respond well to their peer’s intense emotions: “In class, when we spoke about it, I tried to interpret the other kids’ smiles. Were they mock smiles? Or were they happy that he was expressing what they were feeling?” Jim decided the latter, and that this student actually could help his fellow classmates. He could vent for them. “I felt that he was expressing the class’s feelings that I had gotten in writing from them, that he was expressing them out loud.”

Bringing this student to come to the front of the room was a process that took the entire semester. He chose the very last report slot. “I felt that would give him a chance to see all the other students give their reports and he would see the appreciation, the clapping after every report,” Jim said.

When it was time for him to give his report, the very last oral report of the semester, Jim was apprehensive. Would his student be able to do it? Would the others treat him right? But he had taken careful steps to ensure this kid’s success. Periodically he’d had the students work in small groups of four, and kept the groups the same all semester. This fostered a comfortable familiarity for this student, and allowed the others in his group to see his strengths — he could always be depended on to have vast amounts of material at his command.  And Jim would monitor the others’ behavior, to ensure their respect for this student’s differences.

The student began delivering his report, head turned to the side, looking only at Jim. So Jim walked to the back of the class so that the student would look the right way. Jim saw that the report was going to go beyond the class period. But Jim gave the signal to the others to stay and listen. Because the students knew him so well by this time, and because Jim had modeled care and respect, and gotten him to work in a small group, they all behaved appropriately. No one rustled papers or gathered up bags. “And all the students stayed,” Jim said. “And then when he finished — they applauded.”

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