Nov 4     24 min read

Teaching Styles for Autistic VS. Emotionally Disabled Students

Updated: Dec 1

Olivia, a Westmoreland Academy teacher, discussed the difference between working with Autistic students versus Emotionally Disabled students.  Structure is key in keeping the work pace and communication flowing.  Adjustments need to be made at all times while maintaining the structure.

Host Speaker  0:37 

Thanks. Thank you for joining us for another episode of I am Able. The goal of our podcast is to bring acceptance and awareness to our communities when working with educating and living with people of all abilities.

Jamie:  0:51 

Hello, everyone. I’m Jamie Laura Tovar, and today I’m talking with Olivia. Olivia, can you tell me what your connection is with the autism community?

Olivia:  1:02 

Hi, everyone. I am Olivia via senor. And I am a lead teacher at West Berlin Academy. And it was on Academy teaches students with autism special needs. So I guess that’s my main connection there. A teacher for those who have autism and special needs and learning disabilities. Hello.

Jamie:  1:22 

Welcome, welcome. So, how long have you worked with children on the spectrum?

Olivia:  1:29 

So with Westmoreland This is my fifth year going into my sixth year believe. But I started out at Tobin world actually, which was located in Glendale. And I worked there for about nine months. I want to say there is a school similar to Westmoreland, where they have two campuses, one for those with autism, one for those of EDI I actually started with an EDI background before coming to Westmoreland.

Jamie:  1:54 

Oh, wow. Okay, so EDI. Can you explain that to to those who might not be familiar with that term?

Olivia:  2:01 

Sure. So EDI stands for emotional disturbance. So not to say that those children don’t have other disabilities, learning disabilities are differences, but their primary eligibility would be emotional disturbance.

Jamie:  2:15 

And so how, how is working with emotional disturbance and autism? How are they different?

Olivia:  2:24 

Yeah, so for those kiddos that used to work with at Tobin world, um, they were typically still on the general education curriculum, they needed a specialized setting because their behaviors were so escalated. So we had, you know, youth coming from foster homes from really damaged backgrounds from not so stable home environments, which would lead to a lot of that trauma for them. And that emotional disturbance was triggered. So it was just teaching kids in high school, for example, but you’d be getting desks thrown at you. And it’d be throwing punches and you know, a lot more of the bringing guns to school and knives to school kind of crowd stuff. But, you know, they deserve the same love and acceptance, just like all the other ones, all our other students do. So just a different kind of mindset. You have to be on your toes in a different kind of way. They’re the first ones to tell you if you look any kind of awful that day, let me let me say, that was always fun. Whereas with the crowd of autism, it tends to be a lot more of a communication type puzzle. For me anyway, in my experience, I’m sure that others would maybe see pros and cons to both but or similarities to both. But for the crowd of autism, I really find myself having to think outside the box for communication because you have so many who can be nonverbal, minimally verbal, selectively verbal, who are really strong typers. Who text who are using sign language who use picture communication. There’s just so much more to consider when having conversations. And yeah.

Jamie:  4:12 

Oh, wow. Okay, so you’d say that communication is probably the biggest difference between the two populations.

Olivia:  4:20 

That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Okay, definitely differences, but that’s the first.

Jamie:  4:25 

And so what do you feel like are your biggest challenges? Well, besides communication and teaching children with autism has been another big challenge.

Olivia:  4:36 

Yes, the learning styles. So some students I mean, this is actually a topic close to my heart. I believe even those in general education systems and public schools should be treated as a special needs basis because no one learns the same. There’s just no one you know, and, and general life. But when you add in the autism factor to it, it becomes a little bit trickier, right because we also have the committee factor and the behaviors. So taking all that to consideration, and then the learning styles, some are auditory, some are visual, some are textual, some process at different speeds. It’s just, there’s so many different layers. When going into this crowd. It’s really amazing. Because once you crack that code or get close to it, and you get that report go with the students, it’s just so rewarding for both for both sides. Yeah, they get to feel proud of themselves, because they know like, Yes, I, I can show you what I can do. Because honestly, they could always do it. It’s just what’s the best way for them to show this. And that’s always been like a big fun puzzle mystery of it.

Jamie:  5:42 

So every day is a big mystery that you have to solve,

Olivia:  5:45 

oh, yes, you can wander with your schedules and your implementations and your goals for the day. But then something comes out of the right field. And you’re just like, Okay, this is what we’re dealing with now. Let’s, let’s roll with it. Push forward. Yeah. It’s fun.

Jamie:  6:04 

Sounds like it. Yes. So it sounds like you probably every student is going to be different. But could you kind of give us what a typical day is like working with a person with autism or a typical day? For you working at Westmoreland.

Olivia:  6:25 

Yeah. So before I leave, for every afternoon, before I leave, I make sure I do set up. So in my class, for example, we have our morning meeting. But because everyone works at different paces, I have their paper versions on their desks ready to go. So they can start before group meeting. So for those who work a little bit faster, they can get it done, have a break, and then we can respond in group, for those a little need a little bit more time, they have time to get ahead so that they’re not falling behind during group. So that kind of helps account for the different processing types. But beyond that, it’s also structure, I need to make sure I have my plants up for the day, we have materials ready to go. Because oftentimes, when working with in the setting, you need to make sure you have everything set. So for those who get frustrated when things aren’t ready, readily available for the students who really need all those visuals to be in place for them to be successful. So it’s making sure the assignment sheets are printed out, the task analysis boards are ready to go. All materials are pre printed if you need to. That’s making sure that the classroom is set up and clean and organized so that the next day when they come in, they’re not coming into a mess, because that can be another factor of distraction for them or frustration. Because they I feel like people don’t really realize they take in their surroundings at such a higher pace and in such a different way than we do. There’s so hyper focus sometimes. So any little detail can cause distraction. So that’s kind of a typical day, just making sure the visuals are in place, and the structure is in place. And I myself and my team are trying our best to maintain that structure. Because when it comes down to it, when we’re consistent with our structure, that’s also a way of keeping our promises, right, like we’re holding our end of expectations up as teachers. So then they in turn are learning to model Okay, well, I need to hold on my expectation as a student to Oh, yeah.

Jamie:   8:26 

So it sounds like you really have to be very organized, you have to dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s as they say,

Olivia:  8:35 

yes. But I want to out to the crowd out there. Yes, structure an organization. But like I said, things happen. And you also have to model those moments of, it’s okay when things change or don’t go according to plan, because you can over structure the environment to the point where they now are reliant on the visuals and the supports. So being ready and prepared, but also being okay with being flexible. And understanding that you cannot take things personally. Ultimate mindset there, please don’t take things personally. Right? For sure.

Jamie:  9:14 

So how big is how many students are in your classroom?

Olivia:  9:18 

Yeah, currently, it’s a little different because we’ve gone through COVID Right, we’re in our transition stage. I have five that are coming to campus. I have two online right now. So we have a total of seven. But I know that I’ve interviewed a couple and I think we might have a couple more on the way further down the line.

Jamie:  9:37 

Oh, wow. Okay. So that’s typical. So like seven to 10 students in your class, would you say is that about average or,

Olivia:  9:49 

um, it’s hard to say an average but I can’t say that Westmoreland classrooms don’t exceed 12 students. Okay. Yeah.

Jamie:  10:00 

And so, um, what would you say is your biggest success? As a teacher in this field?

Olivia:  10:09 

Oof, that is so hard. That is difficult. Um, I think it’s really difficult to answer just because a lot of teachers in this field particularly tend to be very empathetic and humble. And it’s, we focus so much on the students and our, our CO teachers and staff. So it’s hard to sit back and say, I did this so well. But I’ve had so many moments with individual students, that it’s hard to say a favorite or most important, but I can’t say that just today. I brought up the conversation of how are you guys feeling about being back at school in person? So we actually got a really good group discussion going. And then just a model, you know, I had the CO teachers in the classroom. Hey, miss, so And so Mr. So and so how do you feel so we had authentic responses, and we’re getting great responses from the students. And I said, Well, for me, I also felt anxious. I felt anxious about being prepared, making sure you guys had a good classroom to come to. I felt anxious about being a good teacher, I thought, am I going to be able to do this again? You know, I had self doubt too. And I was telling my students this, and my, one of my students said, this, Olivia, you are a good teacher. And I cried, because that was just such a sincere response. And it was just like one way of saying, Okay, I’m doing something, right. Because my students telling me, I’m learning with you. And that was amazing today.

Jamie:  11:40 

Oh, that gave me chills. That’s, that’s what you do this for right is to hear things like that. You are an amazing teacher.

Olivia:  11:51 

Or try it out here. We really are.

Jamie:  11:54 

Yes, and you do a great job at Westmoreland. So you mentioned co teachers. So how, how many co teachers do you have to support your students in your classroom?

Olivia:  12:05 

Yeah, so I have my TA, but he does sign for a student and then we have received for others, so it’s a total of six of us in the classroom, including myself. Oh, wow. Yeah. But that’s because we have students who are in their IEP require additional assistance. So the classroom support depends on the students in there and what students actually have on their IEP. Okay, some classes I have more staff support, some might have less, it just depends on the student population in there.

Jamie:  12:40 

Okay, so. And can you tell us what an IEP is just for anybody who’s not familiar with that term?

Olivia:  12:47 

Yes, IEP Individualized Education Plan. So it’s really just this legal document that is made up of the teachers goals for the year academic goals, we have social, emotional, behavioral based goals. The behavior support plan that is in place for students and targeting behaviors of maladaptive nature to help them make replacement behaviors become their, you know, goal. We also have assessments for triangles, those are the ones that happen every three years, we have what’s called plops or present levels. Yeah, present levels of progress. So that’s just like an overview of how the student has been doing over the year. And every year, an IEP meeting is held with all members of the education team. So the teacher, the administration, the district person in charge of the case, we have the parents or family members of the students and service providers as well. And sometimes we have students in the IEP s if they’re a little older, and you know, the parents are okay with us asking, Can the student be a part of it? That’s always really cool to happen.

Jamie:  13:56 

Oh, wow. Yeah. Sounds like you have quite a large group that’s gathered for for the IEPs then.

Olivia:  14:04 

Yes, ma’am.

Jamie:  14:06 

And so, um, how are children typically diagnosed?

Olivia:  14:12 

Yeah. So that can be kind of tricky, because you can diagnose for autism as early as age two. But a lot of families have stories that they’ve shared where, you know, some thought that diagnosis and really early because they noticed the lack of eye contact. The developmental stages weren’t they weren’t hitting benchmarks, but we have some families who in their history were so scared almost to finding out if their student or if their child had autism, and that’s okay. I want everyone out there to know it’s okay. If a family has a history of being nervous or scared about it, because it’s challenging it’s then it becomes how do I take care of my student my child in the best way possible? I’m, I’m this is so out of my field right now. But yeah, as early as two years old.

Jamie:  15:03 

Wow. And then at Westmoreland now, all the children have a diagnosis of autism. Is that correct?

Olivia:  15:13 

I want to say most, yeah, we have other disabilities on their IPs as well or, you know, learning differences, but that would be their main priority.

Jamie:  15:22 

Okay, so they may have autism, and then some others type of diagnosis a second.

Olivia:  15:27 

Yeah, we might have autism and dyslexia, we might have autism, I have, I have a student who has autism and hyperlexia. For those who don’t know what hyperlexia is, the student is intensely focused on language and just words in general and can read. I think I remember hearing the family say, they clocked her like three seconds for a page one time. Yeah, she just takes in textual information at such a high rate. And that actually is my her main form of processing. More so than auditory at this point. So

Jamie:  15:59 

Oh, wow. So how so? How do you teach someone like that? mean? Yeah. Do you do anything extra for that? Um,

Olivia:  16:10 

well, she is such a high function functor, she has such a high level of reading. So the student is currently in fourth grade, but she can read in like an eighth grade level. So it’s really about Yeah, giving the Common Core standards of the fourth grade curriculum, but then I supplement I’ll give videos to watch or more books to read. More like project based learning is really impacted. Obviously, during COVID It was kind of hard to do all that kind of stuff. But I do have project based learning and plan for that. So that she has a way of expressing and not hindering her thoughts to just the fourth grade.

Jamie:  16:48 

Okay, got Yes. So So she, you give her the her the basic fourth grade curriculum, and then you just supplement it

Olivia:  16:57 

from there. So for example, I do have something where I had a project for them, but it was again, it was hard to convey over COVID distance learning, so hopefully get to it again. But they were learning about the environment, right pollution, trash, all the landfills all the issues. So sadly, about that. I gave a recycling based project, they could either research the recycling centers in their area, and then write a paragraph for me about it. Or they could create an art project from recycled materials where they would say what materials they used, why they chose their subjects to create, and the name of their creation.

Jamie:  17:32 

Oh, that sounds like so much fun. Yeah. So

Olivia:  17:35 

I mean, they’re still getting she’s getting the fourth grade curriculum, but and then that writing essay, or that research portion, or that art creativity, it’s a little bit more expressive, right.

Jamie:  17:44 

Oh, neat. Very good. Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. Nice. Thank you. So what else? Would you like people in the community to know about autism?

Olivia:  18:01 

I would hope that people can start understanding that it’s, it’s okay to be different, you know, that the sigma is that, you know, it’s hard to communicate with them. But it’s really not. It’s just giving the patience and the time. And understanding that brains are so complex, and everyone’s brain just works differently. And that’s okay. Maybe making it more aware of their, their own children if they see someone out in the community with headphones on. And the child asked, like, why is that person wearing headphones? Instead of getting defensive? Or maybe feeling awkward? Just answer the question, say, oh, maybe it’s just really loud in here. Don’t you ever feel like it’s too loud, sometimes related back, I think we have more of those conversations, then people in the Autistic community can start feeling more able to be themselves and not feel so awkward in situations because that’s what it really is. There’s they still want to have relationships and communities and foundations. It’s just how can we make it more accessible for them. So maybe public settings, offering those free headphones, for those who have sensory high auditory issues, or maybe having more areas in public spaces, like the parks, museums, whatever it is for having soft sensory areas where we can like bounce on foam boards, and have all those things, because in general, who wouldn’t like to have those areas? Just having those added things to our culture and society, I think would really start opening up the world for our autistic amazing individuals, such as come forth and be a part of us. You know, it’s it’s not hard to make those adjustments. I think it’s just a mindset change of, oh, this person is different to oh, what can I learn from you? Or hey, how can I be a part of your world because you’re trying to be a part of my world, right? Yeah. Nice. That happens.

Jamie:  20:05 

We can always hope. Yeah. So do you feel you’ve so you’ve been working with, with children with autism for you said a little over five years? Have you noticed a difference in in the way that people in the community relate to people with autism? Have you seen a difference in like the last five years?

Olivia:  20:28 

Um, I can definitely say there’s a rise of awareness coming up, that’s for sure. Yeah, and more social circles, I do hear the conversation come up. And I actually have a lot of friends, family members who try to approach a subject with me because they know that I am working with these students. So I do feel a sense of community. Trying to understand more, I feel that I see some public areas like the parks, and they’re talking about I do see that around the country, more people are trying to be inclusive, like I’ve seen a water park, for example, that was dedicated to those with special needs. That was really cool. Yeah, I don’t think it was in California, I want to say was a part of the US though. So I see those little things popping up more and more. But I think it’s great that the conversations at least started right about awareness, but we want to move from awareness to acceptance, right, but that’s the goal. So just slowly. Yeah, yeah. What’s happening there, I feel it’s slowly heading there more and more. But there’s always more to do. And now with the vaccination conversation that came up because of COVID. That kind of brought it back a little bit people back to this vaccinations cause autism? No. So again, at least conversations are happening, you can’t We can’t move anywhere unless people talk about it. So that’s the biggest difference. I’ve seen more talking.

Jamie:  22:00 

That’s great. I mean, the more the more that we talk about it, the more that people are going to learn about it. And just just the more normal it all becomes, right. So hopefully, when people see those the puzzle pieces and other symbols for autism now that they’re, they’re a little bit more aware of what they actually mean, right?

Olivia:  22:21 

Yeah, that’s true. But you know, what, actually, another major thing I’ve seen lately is, the language is changing. So I don’t know if you realize but student with autism versus autistic student. So for those who are listening, person, first language, so student with autism shows more that this is a student who happens to have autism. When we say an autistic student, you are labeling them under one category. So the language is definitely changing. Even high functioning, low functioning. I don’t know if you’ve heard that conversation about that language change, high functioning is now trying to be faded out as a term.

Jamie:  23:01 

Oh, no, I wasn’t aware of that. Okay, so the new term.

Olivia:  23:06 

Yeah, you know, what, I’ve actually been doing research myself, I can’t remember if they’ve locked down a new term for it, if they have my apologies to anyone out there who knows what it is? And I do not, but I do know that it is now being regarded as kind of disabling to the community. Because it really,

Jamie:  23:24 

yeah, because of high functioning.

Olivia:  23:26 

Mm hmm. Because to those who don’t really agree with it, it kind of implies that the low functioning are lesser than almost, you know, because there’s, there’s a spectrum of low high, but it’s not, it doesn’t mean that, you know, we were talking about just how much support is a person need? Okay. Yeah, again, I don’t know what term we’ve locked out of the society and that way, I think that’s an ongoing debate at the moment, but it is changing. So the fact that people are trying to be more aware of how language affects that’s really cool, too.

Jamie:  23:56 

Absolutely. Absolutely. So hopefully, more people are getting that the whole concept that that we learn at Westmoreland, about everyone being whole able and complete just as they are.

Olivia:  24:08 

Yep. Taking charge other way. That’s right.

Jamie:  24:15 

Okay, so do you have any other ideas on how the community could be more supportive of people with autism?

Olivia:  24:26 

Um, I mean, as a teacher, my first instinct is to just children’s literature, because they’re, of course, our future, all children. So I’m incorporating images and stories of students and other children like them who have disabilities or autism or, you know, whatever it may be, until their literature from a very early age would be helpful. Because they can at least are asking questions, you know, or engaging, exposed to it. I think that as adults too, when you’re in the community allowing your children to ask questions and not being fearful answering. And then themselves, I think that disregarding maybe what we would say, as a strange noise or movement or something, if someone’s not hurting you or anyone else, why do we have to make them feel like the other and keep staring at them? That I think honestly, those little things here and there can really start helping in the community. You know, it’s like when people complain about crying babies, for example, why is that parent bringing this baby in? Well, the parents to get out, and that baby needs to get out, right? Why is this? Why is this kid here? Who’s flapping his hands and jumping up? They want to enjoy the movies just like anybody else. Why would they be stuck at home? That’s, that’s awful. So I think just being okay with different body movements and sounds and equipment needs that maybe someone’s to carry with them. And just knowing that again, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else? For themselves, we’re okay. We can all together.

Jamie:   26:11 

Write funny movements or not? Or Yes, different language. Yeah, exactly. We all can just get along together and have fun. Yeah, whatever way that we are able to do that. So what advice can you give to parents who may be just have their child just has been diagnosed with autism? Do you have any advice for new parents?

Olivia:  26:46 

Yeah, um, there are so many resources that a school can give. And I every IEP meeting, these resources are offered to parents, and more often than not, they take it but I can tell and tone and body language, you’re not necessarily going to use it. And I think that it’s really important for the for, especially for parents who have this new diagnosis in their lives, to take advantage of those resources. I’m not saying that there’s a perfect world out there. And they’re going to be the best resource possible for the student, but at least to get information to get you they have an in home support for some of these services, community support. So if you are willing to accept the help, it’s there. I also want to say to those new families who are or the families who are newly dealing with this, I should say, to not take things personally, as a parent, because you’re going to get a lot of advice from professionals, service providers, all these things. And it may be they’re offering advice on how to restructure your household dailies schedule, on how we approach the students routines. Being able to say no, and sticking No, I think that’s a really big one, I think parents often feel a lot of guilt, because they just want to help their kids so much. And that can become enabling. But it’s really important to remember that this is still a child who was developing, and just like any child, they need boundaries. So it’s okay to say no, even though we our heart goes out, you know, consistently following through with those protocols that have been established by a team. I think that’s really important. And as they grow, keeping communication with the education team with the teacher, is vital. And again, that follows through if a teacher and a school base is doing a plan, and it’s possible for you to follow through in the home, the more consistency that that student gets, the more likely they’re able to replace the maladaptive behavior with the target behavior. So that is like consistent, consistent, consistent, and please ask for help because it is their

Jamie:  29:06 

hope. Yes, that’s really good advice. Really good. So is there is there anything else that you would like for the community to know it’s we covered quite a bit of quite a few topics this afternoon. Is there anything else that that you think that we maybe we have missed that you want to add?

Olivia:  29:30 

Yes, always so much. But I don’t know I don’t at the top of my head. No, no, I’m sure later, I’m gonna be so regretful about this. And in that case, hey, look out for Olivia part two on a podcast.

Jamie:  29:48 

There we go. Free to come back and talk some more.

Olivia:  29:52 

Yes, I would love to but I guess for the time being just know that I’m there. People just like you’re me. Right. It’s just about what kind of patience can we give them as a community to let them express themselves? Just be patient, please because I promise that person that’s in there is so worth it. Right? And express love art, love our students.

Jamie:  30:22 

They are amazing. They are amazing. Alright, Olivia. Well, I really appreciate your time talking with me today. Thank you so very much.

Olivia:  30:32 

Of course. Thank you for having me. I hope that I was held closure, educational in some way.

Jamie:   30:38 

Absolutely. No, I I learned a lot myself and I and I work with students with autism on a daily basis, but there’s always so much more to learn. So I really appreciate it. Thank you so much. Um, she’s amazing at throw that out there. Thank you. All right.


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