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Teaching the Non-verbal Autistic Student

By Wally Wojtowicz, Jr.

Summarized by Gail Gillingham Wylie

Note: This article has been summarized from one of 28 pages written by Wally. I summarized it for those who do not have the time or energy to read 28 pages because I believe that the message is so important. If you are interested in reading the whole article let me know via e-mail, or watch this space as we will be typing it in when we have time.


In order to effectively teach a non-verbal child with autism, the teacher must trust that the non-verbal autistic can: hear, see, smell, taste, feel, think, formulate ideas, communicate with himself, understand what he hears, understand what he sees (including reading), question that which he doesn't understand, achieve intellectual superiority as compared to his age group, and deal with reality an age appropriate manner.


The teacher must do all this in the midst of not having any reliable way of knowing what the autistic person is taking in or understanding anything that takes place around him. It's like going to the grocery store and shopping in the dark. You must trust your instincts to guide you to the checkout table at which point you know for sure what you have purchased as you felt your way along the long and dark isles probing for that which is familiar to you. The reward for all the work you have put for this only experienced at the end. A teacher who cannot do the above is not trusted by the autistic student. Any information shared by that teacher would be considered irrelevant, due to the mistrust. Irrelevant material is not stored for retrieval.


The non-verbal autistic person treats each new item that he encounters as a gestalt that he must think about. It is thought about quantitatively or as a complete and independent idea that is not connected to ideas about anything else, but only in regard to its own classification in the reaches of the autistic mind. Thus using analogy (for example: an onion is round like an apple) will confuse the autistic person, as they would then store the onion in the same classification as an apple.


In order to teach a non-verbal autistic person, the teacher must remember to introduce the topic, telling the student that he will be presenting information on a new item that is called an onion and can be utilized as food. The student is thus alerted to the fact that the information he will be hearing from the teacher is about a new food item, the onion, and that it will require its own classification, which will be placed under the major heading of food. As the teacher begins to teach, the student enters the information in the "file" labelled onion, which he has created in his mind. At this point, the information that is being stored may not be understood immediately, but will be understood in time once each fact has been thought about and interpreted in the context of the students past experience.


Teachers must refrain from unnecessary rhetoric in the presentation of the idea "what is an onion?". All that is required are the facts about the onion itself, such as the qualitative affects of the objects: feel, shape, color, density, size, taste and aroma. Autistic students are fully aware that these attributes are shared by objects and are adjectives used to describe objects, not the object themselves. For example:

  • Onions are vegetables. Onions are food. Onions are round. They yield an unpleasant odour when they are cut into while raw. These gases can irritate the eyes and make you cry. The shape of an onion is a globe with a stem at the top and roots coming out of a tuft in the center of the bottom. Each individual onion is made up of tightly packed layers of leaves. These leaves are green above the stem and white below. The outer leaves are dry and are very thin and brown. This presentation should continue once it has begun so that the facts are stored together,


The teacher must not be distracted by whatever the non-verbal autistic person is doing to calm his body and make it possible for him to keep listening. This may range from making noises, to moving around the room, to using repetitive motions (each one is an individual). These calming skills are not distracting to the autistic person at all but help him listen more clearly to the information that is coming in from his environment. If you do not allow him to use his coping skills: for example: say "be still and quiet while I teach you about the onion" the student will attempt to comply as ordered. He will become distracted by his attempts to comply and loose track of the original purpose of the lesson. Is it about onions or about being still and quiet?


It should not be required for the student to prove what he knows while you are teaching him. He is not responding to you because of the physical limitations of his body, not because he doesn't know the material. In fact he desperately wants to share his knowledge with you, if for no other reason than to simply be permitted to move on to new material. But his body does not comply.


Once the material is stored in the mind of the student, he needs time to sort through what he has received in order to make sense of it. This sorting includes the material that was received directly from the teacher as well as any other material that was coming in to the brain at the same time, such as a song being played on the radio in the background, or the conversation of others in the next room. The student receives all of this information at the same time and in the same way. Each of the intruding sounds in this potpourri of noises is distinct and separate from each other and does not break down or become distorted from being heard simultaneously. They are stored in the onion file and will stay there in the future regardless of their validity or apparent usefulness unless sorted.


"When each day reached its end and I would be alone in my room, I was determined that I would not forget anything as regards to what I had been exposed to during the day. The day was replayed over and over in my mind as each detail was examined and reduced to factual basics that I entered in my subconsciousus part of my mind to remain. Reviewing this information took time. In most cases, the information that I gathered through the day was reviewed that evening. If I didn't try to finish it that evening, I would try to finish it the next day when there was a quiet time to think and categorize the enormous amounts of information that I was exposed to each day. I'll look through the information regularly to determine if it is useful and remove that which I have determined to be irrelevant at the moment. This irrelevant information is not forgotten but reclassified and removed to an appropriate archive in my subconsciousus mind."


To try and answer a question about onions immediately upon the teacher's ending of his dissertation is almost impossible for the student to do without making outrageous errors. More importantly, one does not want to make oneself appear as if retarded by giving answers that are, in fact, linked to everything that was heard at the time that the lesson was being presented. "Great hopeless jailhouse you did point ock ire of eves." may be a possible answer that the student gives when asked what is a onion by the teacher immediately after this lesson, before he has the time to review and sort everything that had come in during that time.


If given time to think about all of the information and time to sort out what was relevant and what was not, the student can reply that "the onion is a global shaped vegetable that is composed of tightly packed layers of leaves growing underground". It would have taken approximately one day to separate this answer from the raw sensory information that the student unwittingly gathered from all their sensory channels at that time. The same process is followed if a book is read. Information that is read is easier to understand and recreate in the mind because it is not diluted with other visual information coming in at the same time. One cannot share what one has learned until the sorting and classification has taken place. Once the student has categorized the data properly he can access this information easily whenever it is needed. The body will still get in the way of communicating one’s knowledge and understanding easily.


Teaching the student to use the information he has acquired on his own or has had taught to him is teaching him to think. Telling him to think just like you do without you knowing anything about his sensory responses or how he perceives information is teaching him nothing that he can use to equate his reality to yours. It is only reinforcing his position that the reality he knows and is comfortable with is less confusing to him, so he must retreat to his world to escape the maddening chaos he perceives in yours. Teaching him your thought processes exactly as you implement them only frustrates the autistic person to the point of despair because he cannot ask you questions that would clarify your outlandish ideas about a reality that you do not understand.


Teaching the student to reach the same conclusions as you do after both you and he experience the same reality is actually only teaching him to "paint by number" to produce an exact copy of what you have experienced. It teaches him nothing about expressing his feelings or how to express how he experienced a particular reality. Each time this happens to us, he will retreat to where he knows he is safe and can express himself without fear of having to explain why he did something the way he did.


Reality as non-verbal autistics perceive it is likely to be different from the reality that you realize from exactly the same stimuli experienced. Unless you make the attempt to view reality from their perspective and they from yours, neither will you understand them completely or will you be completely be understood by them. There must be some way that we can establish an effective dialogue, which facilitates the recognition of the equality existing between the two groups. And that's what teaching is all about.

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