Students with severe autism, severe intellectual disabilities, severe brain damage and other such disabilities often lack the capacity to understand and use traditional educational subject matter to improve any aspect of their life. However, IEP-driven programs for low cognitive, low verbal students continue to overemphasize traditional academics, and underemphasize functional academics. Over-teaching material that is beyond the cognitive capacity of a child to understand and apply to their lives in a meaningful way, is disrespectful to that child and to their disorder. Alternate curriculums for these students should primarily focus on daily situations, and the people, objects, locations and functions within those situations. Instead of this functionally based approach, students are being introduced to information in academics which are irrelevant to their needs and interests, and which do not advance the opportunity for cognitive growth and social success in the school, home and community.
This practice of teaching is as disrespectful as it would be to instruct these students in a foreign language. Reactions by students to curriculum they cannot understand or use can range from aggressive behavior, emotional shutdown or social withdrawal.
When an educator is made aware through formal assessment that a student is able to grasp more complex or abstract topics, it is of course important for that child to have a curriculum that provides such academics. In a special day class, where there is a range of cognitive impairment from mild to severe, it is fine to include a child with more limited cognitive abilities in some modified way, but not to the exclusion of functional academics. It is most important that these students be taught to buy their lunch, locate different parts of the school, engage in reciprocal communication and behaviors with peers and spell, read and write words that help support a better school experience.
Rote information about history and science that is beyond their cognitive abilities to currently grasp is not providing an appropriate education.
How These Children Learn
Because severe cognitive impairment limits the ability to conceptualize, analyze, compare, infer or reflect, traditional academics have little value in improving functioning in any of the developmental domains. In place of higher level cognitive processes these children rely on visual learning, rote learning, systems learning, imitating, auditory processing and learning through repetition and reinforcement. By the time students with severe cognitive challenges are of high school age, parents and educators have a good idea about their ability to benefit from instruction in the state core curriculum courses. The accuracy of the student’s cognitive assessment should result in appropriate curriculum content.
In the absence of higher cognitive abilities, information taught should be presented in a way that aligns more with sensory functioning and personal interests, rather than conceptualization. These differently-thinking children become more engaged, and consequently more able to learn and generalize when curriculum reflects their interests and skills, and includes familiar people, places and established activities from their life. When the brain is lighting up with emotion and recognition, the potential to go up the cognitive developmental ladder increases. The reason why so many special education classes continue to overemphasize traditional academics in place of functional academics, is baffling and concerning.
An additional issue of concern is the practice by many special education programs of resisting parental input related to curriculum content. This diminishes the quality and efficacy of individual student programs. After all, by the time a special needs child is in high school and entering young adulthood, it is the parents that have the most extensive knowledge about that child’s skills, interests, weaknesses and clinical issues. How can an appropriate curriculum be constructed without parents having some “authority” about what educational materials and methodology are included and excluded from it?
As the mother of an 18 year-old boy with severe autism, I know that what motivates parents to “know” what they are talking about regarding the educational needs of their children, is a concern about how that child is going to function in the world when their parents are no longer around to protect and help them. This fear driven passion is an effective motivation which can translate into a useful resource for ideas that can improve an otherwise generic or inappropriately chosen curriculum.
Choosing the Right Subjects and Methodology for a Functional Academic Program
Setting aside an emphasis on history, science, math (other than for daily life skills), and other traditional academics, a program for low-cognitive, low-verbal students should include daily living topics such as;
- Self Care ( dressing, cleaning, first aid)
- Cleaning and organizing
- Social engagement
- Recreation and hobbies
as well as vocational topics such as;
- Stock work
- Food service
- Gardening and Landscape
Within these real life situations, functional academics, such as using money, telling time, safety and communication can be taught and generalized.
When educators have accurate knowledge about how their students learn, (i.e. what their processing strengths and weakness are), life and vocational skills can be learned, and some degree of personal independent functioning can occur. In support of these emerging functional abilities, tasks and sequences of activities must be broken down into steps. One effective method of support is the pairing of real-life photos with signing, gestures or written words that label objects and describe actions that the child needs to take. Photos are presented to the child and actions modeled to reinforce learning. “Hand over hand” support also helps some students “feel” their bodies move which reinforces the concept of them doing the action. Words are continuously verbalized while pointing at pictures and performing desired actions. It is with this multi-modal strategy of combining visual support, simultaneously with auditory reinforcement and enactment of the actual action to be taken, that children with severe cognitive impairment become aware of what needs to happen, and what part they play in the action sequence. This process of teaching increases executive functioning, in that through learning to understand what needs to happen in a given situation, the child becomes the problem solver – more of thinker, not just a doer. These children can be taught the behavioral, communication, and inter-personal skills needed to participate in the their world to whatever degree their abilities will allow.
Most high schools are equipped with the necessary settings to create experiences in these types of vocational and daily life skill experiences. They should also have trained staff who can implement strategies that are consistent with the learning styles and abilities of the student. The problem seems to lie in the lack of commitment on the part of many schools to develop structured programs that provide these experiences on a daily basis, and that use methodology which includes the components of teaching tools such as “pre-teaching”, “Social Stories”, and data collection and analysis.
“Pre-teaching” as a Strategy for Learning
“Pre-teaching” is the teaching of skills prior to the activity that utilizes them. Pre-teaching parts of a skill or activity is effective because it allows the child to comprehend a reduced portion of information, prior to being expected to process and learn a skill or activity spontaneously in real-time.
This teaching approach is particularly effective for children with cognitive disabilities. For example, if applied to an activity such as going to a grocery store, a child can be helped to prepare a list of items to be bought at the store. He or she could look at a map of the store and become familiar with the location of preferred items. Preparing list of names of people in the store, either by first name (if a familiar person) or by job title is also helpful. The words attached to this pre-taught information is an opportunity for meaning language development. These pre-teaching activities can be done both individually or in a group setting.
Creating a “Social Story” From the “Pre-teaching “Method
A “Social Story” is a simple narrative that includes accurate information about a topic of interest or situation of relevance to a child. The story is brief and is presented in a clear and reassuring manner. The goal of the story can be to affirm something that the child does well, or to teach the child about a skill or event of importance. Although the goal of a Social Story should never be to change a behavior, the students improved understanding of events and expectations may lead to more effective responses.
Expanding the Utility of Functional Skills Classes and Training
Daily living curriculum including classes such as cooking, art, computer, gardening or clerical skills should include components that measure functioning in all domains. Too often the goals for the student are limited to performing simple behavioral tasks that they were willing or able to do. What is missed in this limited view is information regarding language acquisition, socialization, spontaneous problem solving, and emotional regulation. It is within these real life situations, while performing real life tasks in interaction with others, that meaningful cognition can occur. Improved cognitive function can lead to improved language and communication skills. These action-oriented learning environments are much more appropriate for cognitively challenged students, than sitting for long periods of time doing worksheets.
School personnel, from administrative to teaching staff, need to learn more about the clinical aspects and realities of low-cognitive, low-verbal students in order to develop appropriate curriculum. They need to understand how these students learn, and what is most important for them to be learning, at this time in their development. If collaborative, effective programs are in place, developmental gains can made for even the most severely affected child. To do any less for these children should not be tolerated. It is great to “mean well”, but more important to educate these students appropriately in order to support their transition out of school with skills that will help them find their place in the world.
About the Author
22 years in private practice in Brentwood, California. Specializing in autism, addiction/recovery issues, and relationships. Author, lecturer and media experience dealing with autism, relationships and addiction and self esteem issues.Rebecca Sperber, MS, MFT Family, Individual and Couples Therapy 11950 San Vicente Blvd. #103 Los Angeles, California 90049 #310-207-8552 www.rebeccasperbermft.com