By Gill D. Ansell, author of Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: An Insider’s Guide

Being a Teaching Assistant is not what it once was. Years ago we were volunteers who went in to help teachers, prepared the paints for the art session, sorted the aprons out so each child had one, and listened to the children read, amongst other things. Nowadays, it is a job that requires a greater knowledge of the National Curriculum, of child development and of children with special needs. Nowadays, TA’s are trained and qualified and paid for the role they do (although some not enough!).

It is understandable that some TA’s prefer to work with the ‘neuro-typical’ children, and some with the gifted and talented, but neither of these groups appealed to me because I always felt they were going to achieve anyway, without my help. However, the children I got most satisfaction and enjoyment from helping were those with Asperger Syndrome. The way they view the world is refreshing and logical, and easily understood – when we take the time to understand it. Yet, in order for them to access the National Curriculum they often need a translator.

Take this scenario for example; The teacher is stood at the front of the class, teaching the class of 30+ junior aged children about rivers. Most of the children are looking at the teacher. Two children are messing about, with a rubber and rolling it across the table to each other while the teacher isn’t looking. The child with AS is trying to listen but has lost interest after the first few sentences, partly due to the fact there are no visual clues to what she is talking about, partly due to the two children playing with the rubber and partly due to worrying about having to do PE that afternoon and whether or not they are going to get into trouble again for not getting changed quickly enough and being the last one picked to be in someone’s team as usually happens.

The teacher finishes talking about rivers and sets the children to their task. All the children, including the two playing with the rubber, get up and set about getting their books and atlases and returning to their seats. The child with AS remains seated. I ask the child ‘Do you know what you have to do?’ ‘Yes,’ comes the reply ‘I have to get my exercise book, some coloured pencils, an atlas and a question sheet and complete questions 1 to 3 before going to break.’ Now, to most people it would seem this child knows exactly what they have to do. They would be wrong. I then ask, ‘What does that mean?’ to which the reply comes: ‘I don’t know.’

Just because a child with AS is verbally clever does not mean that they understand everything that they say or hear. This child was able to repeat verbatim what they had heard, even though they had been distracted, yet had no idea how to break it down in order to make sense of it. That’s where a good TA or teacher steps in and breaks it down for them: ‘First go to your tray and get your grey geography book.’ Once they have done that, ‘Now, get a question sheet from the teacher’s desk and a pot of crayons, also on the teacher’s desk and come back to your seat.’ Once the child independently gets what they need, explain the first task to the child, and allow them to do it before explaining the next task.

If this scenario seems far-fetched or overly prescriptive, imagine this: I’m stood in front of you explaining all about my favourite fruit cake and how to make it and the ingredients and utensils you will need to complete this task, and then tell you to get on with making it before you can go on for your coffee break. I haven’t given you any visual clues, only verbal ones, but I’m expecting you to have taken all that information in and for you to complete the process of making this lovely fruit cake. How would that make you feel? Can you remember the order everything has to go in? Can you find out where all the utensils are kept? Can you remember all the ingredients and the order in which to mix them? Probably not. You may be able to remember some, but was it exactly as I had told you to do it? And if not, who is in the wrong? You for not completing my instructions to the letter, or me for not teaching you in a way you can learn?

Most often, children with AS are capable of doing the tasks when presented in a way they understand but unfortunately, some teachers and TA’s are still making the assumption that the child with AS understands because they have good language skills. Maybe some do, but we must take responsibility for checking their understanding, just to be sure. Translating in this way costs nothing.

If a teacher’s job is to teach, and a TA’s job is to assist that teaching, then they need to be able to teach and assist in a way the child understands, and bear in mind differentiation; Every Child Matters, their school’s mission statement; and that every child has a right to be different.

As someone once said, ‘if a child doesn’t learn the way you teach, teach the way the child learns’.

Gill D. Ansell has over 14 years’ experience of ASDs, and previously worked as a teaching assistant, both at schools for children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, and in a mainstream primary school.

Read Gill’s article:  ‘How Educators Can Help Students with Asperger Syndrome Relieve Anxieties at School (and Avoid Meltdowns at Home!)’ 

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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