Teaching Students With Special Needs


"In teaching others we teach ourselves"  - Proverb

Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew

by Ellen Notbohm
from the book Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, 2nd edition (2012, Future Horizons, Inc.)
Reprinted in its entirety with permission of author
Some days it seems the only predictable thing about it is the unpredictability. The only consistent attribute—the inconsistency. Autism can be baffling, even to those who spend their lives around it. The child who lives with autism may look “normal” but his behavior can be perplexing and downright difficult.  
Autism was once labeled an “incurable disorder,” but that notion has crumbled in the face knowledge and understanding that increase even as you read this. Every day, individuals with autism show us that they can overcome, compensate for and otherwise manage many of autism’s most challenging characteristics. Equipping those around our children with simple understanding of autism’s basic elements has a tremendous impact on their ability to journey towards productive, independent adulthood.  
Autism is a complex disorder but for purposes of this article, we can distill its myriad characteristics into four fundamental areas: sensory processing challenges, speech/language delays and impairments, the elusive social interaction skills and whole child/self-esteem issues. And though these four elements may be common to many children, keep front-ofmind the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder: no two (or ten or twenty) children with autism will be completely alike. Every child will be at a different point on the spectrum. And, just as importantly, every parent, teacher and caregiver will be at a different point on the spectrum. Child or adult, each will have a unique set of needs.  
Here are ten things every child with autism wishes you knew:  
1. I am a child.  
My autism is part of who I am, not all of who I am. Are you just one thing, or are you a person with thoughts, feelings, preferences, ideas, talents, and dreams? Are you fat (overweight), myopic (wear glasses) or klutzy (uncoordinated)? Those may be things that I see first when I meet you, but you’re more than just that, aren’t you?
  ©2013 Autism Speaks Inc. Autism Speaks and Autism Speaks It’s Time To Listen & Design are trademarks owned by Autism Speaks Inc. All rights reserved.
As an adult, you have control over how you define yourself. If you want to single out one characteristic, you can make that known. As a child, I am still unfolding. Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of. If you think of me as just one thing, you run the danger of setting up an expectation that may be too low. And if I get a sense that you don’t think I “can do it,” my natural response will be, why try?  
2. My senses are out of sync.  This means that ordinary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that you may not even notice can be downright painful for me. My environment often feels hostile. I may appear withdrawn or belligerent or mean to you, but I’m just trying to defend myself. Here’s why a simple trip to the grocery store may be agonizing for me.  
My hearing may be hyperacute. Dozens of people jabber at once. The loudspeaker booms today’s special. Music blares from the sound system. Registers beep and cough, a coffee grinder chugs. The meat cutter screeches, babies wail, carts creak, the fluorescent lighting hums. My brain can’t filter all the input and I’m in overload!  
My sense of smell may be highly sensitive. The fish at the meat counter isn’t quite fresh, the guy standing next to us hasn’t showered today, the deli is handing out sausage samples, the baby in line ahead of us has a poopy diaper, they’re mopping up pickles on aisle three with ammonia. I feel like throwing up.  
And there’s so much hitting my eyes! The fluorescent light is not only too bright, it flickers. The space seems to be moving; the pulsating light bounces off everything and distorts what I am seeing. There are too many items for me to be able to focus (my brain may compensate with tunnel vision), swirling fans on the ceiling, so many bodies in constant motion. All this affects how I feel just standing there, and now I can’t even tell where my body is in space.  
3. Distinguish between won’t (I choose not to) and can’t (I am not able to).  
It isn’t that I don’t listen to instructions. It’s that I can’t understand you. When you call to me from across the room, I hear “*&^%$#@, Jordan. #$%^*&^%$&*.” Instead, come over to me, get my attention, and speak in plain words: “Jordan, put your book in your desk. It’s time to go to lunch.” This tells me what you want me to do and what is going to happen next. Now it’s much easier for me to comply.   4. I’m a concrete thinker. I interpret language literally.  
You confuse me by saying, “Hold your horses, cowboy!” when what you mean is, “Stop running.” Don’t tell me something is “a piece of cake” when there’s no dessert in sight and what you mean is, “This will be easy for you to do.” When you say, “It’s pouring cats and dogs,” I see pets coming out of a pitcher. Tell me, “It’s raining hard.”  
Idioms, puns, nuances, inferences, metaphors, allusions, and sarcasm are lost on me.  
5. Listen to all the ways I’m trying to communicate.  
It’s hard for me to tell you what I need when I don’t have a way to describe my feelings. I may be hungry, frustrated, frightened, or confused but right now I can’t find those words. Be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation or other signs that tell you something is wrong. They’re there.  Or, you may hear me compensate for not having all the words I need by sounding like a little professor or movie star, rattling off words or whole scripts well beyond my developmental age. I’ve memorized these messages from the world around me because I know I am expected to speak when spoken to. They may come from books, television, or the speech of other people. Grown-ups call it echolalia. I may not understand the context or the terminology I’m using. I just know that it gets me off the hook for coming up with a reply.  
6. Picture this! I’m visually oriented.  
Show me how to do something rather than just telling me. And be prepared to show me many times. Lots of patient practice helps me learn.  
Visual supports help me move through my day. They relieve me of the stress of having to remember what comes next, make for smooth transition between activities, and help me manage my time and meet your expectations.  
I need to see something to learn it, because spoken words are like steam to me; they evaporate in an instant, before I have a chance to make sense of them. I don’t have instant processing skills. Instructions and information presented to me visually can stay in front of me for as long as I need, and will be just the same when I come back to them later. Without this, I live the constant frustration of knowing that I’m missing big blocks of information and expectations, and am helpless to do anything about it.  
7. Focus and build on what I can do rather than what I can’t do.  
Like any person, I can’t learn in an environment where I’m constantly made to feel that I’m not good enough and that I need fixing. I avoid trying anything new when I’m sure all I’ll get is criticism, no matter how “constructive” you think you’re being. Look for my strengths and you will find them. There is more than one right way to do most things.  
8. Help me with social interactions.  
It may look like I don’t want to play with the other kids on the playground, but it may be that I simply do not know how to start a conversation or join their play. Teach me how to play with others. Encourage other children to invite me to play along. I might be delighted to be included.  I do best in structured play activities that have a clear beginning and end. I don’t know how to read facial expressions, body language, or the emotions of others. Coach me. If I laugh when Emily falls off the slide, it’s not that I think it’s funny. It’s that I don’t know what to say. Talk to me about Emily’s feelings and teach me to ask, “Are you okay?”  
9. Identify what triggers my meltdowns.  
Meltdowns and blow-ups are more horrid for me than they are for you. They occur because one or more of my senses has gone into overload, or because I’ve been pushed past the limit of my social abilities. If you can figure out why my meltdowns occur, they can be prevented. Keep a log noting times, settings, people, and activities. A pattern may emerge.  
Remember that everything I do is a form of communication. It tells you, when my words cannot, how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. My behavior may have a physical cause. Food allergies and sensitivities sleep problems and gastrointestinal problems can all affect my behavior. Look for signs, because I may not be able to tell you about these things.  
10. Love me unconditionally.  
Throw away thoughts like, “If you would just—” and “Why can’t you—?” You didn’t fulfill every expectation your parents had for you and you wouldn’t like being constantly reminded of it. I didn’t choose to have autism. Remember that it’s happening to me, not you. Without your support, my chances of growing up to be successful and independent are slim. With your support and guidance, the possibilities are broader than you might think.  
Three words we both need to live by: Patience. Patience. Patience.  
View my autism as a different ability rather than a disability. Look past what you may see as limitations and see my strengths. I may not be good at eye contact or conversation, but have you noticed that I don’t lie, cheat at games, or pass judgment on other people?  
I rely on you. All that I might become won’t happen without you as my foundation. Be my advocate, be my guide, love me for who I am, and we’ll see how far I can go.  
© 2012 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com  Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including posting on the Internet.  
Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm’s books and articles have informed and delighted millions in more than nineteen languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a ForeWord Book of Year Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, a Mom’s Choice Gold Award, Learning magazine's Teacher's Choice Award, two iParenting Media awards, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. She is a contributor to numerous publications, classrooms, conferences and websites worldwide.


Visualization Embodied: Art Students Explore Metaphor Through Kinesthetic Learning

Thirty-five first-grade students stand beside bright yellow chairs in a tightly packed art classroom, stretching their limbs high, low, wide, and winding to represent the growing branches of their own distinctive trees. Instead of sitting with their hands folded on the tables with their eyes on their teacher as they often do in other classrooms, today they are free to stand, sway, and move their bodies to act out  their rapidly progressing thoughts. Ooohs, ahhs, and giggles mix with hushed thoughts and deliberate movements as each student visualizes and performs a growing tree that tells the story of their life. This is a glimpse into a visualization exercise that empowers early childhood students to respond kinesthetically to deepen their thinking and inspire personally meaningful artmaking.

Kinesthetic Learning and Visualization

Kinesthetic learning engages students by bringing abstract ideas to life. This physical, hands-on engagement makes complex ideas accessible to early childhood students. “Children of this age range are active, hands-on learners. They have short attention spans, cannot sit still for long periods of time, and learn best through hands-on exploration and manipulation of materials from the world around them” (College Board, 2012). Many students are able to engage in higher-order, complex thinking by participating in kinesthetic learning compared to other learning styles.

Visualization is a powerful teaching strategy that guides learners to think critically to create a detailed mental image. This is a complex and abstract skill for young learners. By incorporating movement, an abstract process becomes a tactile experience. This visualization strategy was adapted from an exercise Aileen Pugliese Castro describes in Introducing Metaphorical Thinking to Children (2004). In this exercise, students are prompted to imagine trees that represent their lives. Sensory questions guide students to envision a descriptive metaphor. Castro uses these prompts to guide students through this visualization:

“Think about the day that you were born. Somewhere on this earth a tree started to grow. That tree has been growing since the day you were born. We don’t know where that tree is, but it is as old as you are today. If you were to see your tree today, what would it look like? Think about the kind of tree it is. How big is it? Where is it growing, and is there anything nearby? What color is your tree, and does it change colors with the seasons? What makes up your tree? What kind of leaves does it have? Does your tree grow fruit or flowers? How does your tree feel? How does your tree smell? How is your tree like you?” 

This visualization strategy can elicit meaningful responses from many young students, but Castro notes that some first-grade learners found the complexity of this exercise challenging. Adapting her strategy to allow students to move and perform rather than remaining seated can help engage young learners in this exploration of metaphor.

Use the following prompts to guide your young students to use their bodies to represent their unique tree:

Curl up your body and make it as small as you can. You are a tiny seed ready to grow.

Imagine when you were a brand new baby. Your seed is new, too. Move your body to show your seed beginning to sprout.

How did you change as you grew older? Your tree is growing older, too. Move your body to show how you have grown.

Every person is different, and so is every tree. Shape your body to show what makes your tree special.

Lesson Sequence

Day 1:

Tree Visualization Embodied: Have students find a place to stand where they have room to move while listening. Guide students through embodied visualization.

Drawing strategy: Use your body to model the parts of the tree. Young students often struggle to represent the trunk of the tree and instead focus on many lines representing branches. Compare the trunk of a tree to your torso, and compare the branches to your arms. Model drawing a thick section for the trunk, then lines extending from the trunk as branches.

Artmaking prompt: Create a tree that tells the story of your life. Students create their drawing that they will paint in the following lesson.

Day 2:

Painting: Students engage in hands-on, exploratory painting with an emphasis on personal expression. Have students consider how color represents a mood when painting their tree. To encourage students to use color symbolically and expressively, consider a warm-up activity where students dance or perform the feeling they get when looking at different colors. Not only will this activity engage students, but it will remind them of their goal for the day—using color to show mood.

Day 3:

Revisions in Pastel: Students share, revise, and adjust their work using oil pastel to add final details to their paintings. The pastel medium allows more precision and detail for young students than paint, and students are able to manage pastels independently. This will give you time to offer additional support to individual students.

Artist Statements: Allow students to write freely, to the best of their ability. Encourage them to focus on meaning not spelling accuracy. For emergent writers, you can scribe the statement for them below their writing. Use these simple prompts to help guide your students to write their artist statements:

Tell me about your work.

 Describe your process. (How did you make it?)

What does it mean to you?

Encourage Divergent Responses

This unit is designed to build upon students’ prior knowledge and interests, engaging all learners in this creative task. It is important to reinforce your students’ efforts by welcoming divergent responses. Zimmerman (2009) uses historical research to show that all students varying in skills, interest and motivation are all capable of creativity. The artmaking prompt is open-ended by design, opening up possibilities for students who did not consider themselves creative or artistic. This allows students with a wide range of skill levels to be successful. Provide a safe environment for creativity by encouraging unique or novel responses.

Take time to celebrate your students’ work by displaying their paintings and artist statements in a prominent location in the school or classroom. Be sure to display all of your students’ paintings, not just a pristine selection. Your students will feel proud when they see that you value their work enough to hang it on the wall. Typing students’ artist statements and posting them below each painting is a wonderful way to make learning visible to students, teachers, and community members. Your showcase of distinctive and expressive trees will acknowledge the efforts of all of your students and foster a culture that supports creativity and divergent thinking.


Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.



Carlos, A. P. (2004). Introducing metaphorical thinking to children. In London, P. et al. Toward a holistic paradigm in art education. Baltimore, MD: Center for Art Education, Maryland Institute College of Art.

Zimmerman, E. (2009). Reconceptualizing the role of creativity in art education theory and practice. Studies in Art Education, 50(4), 382-399.