Reasonable accommodations for moderate autism?

As I noted in a recent comment, the most helpful accommodations J. got in college–and perhaps the most helpful accommodations he’s ever had–were:

1. A written transcript of the entire class.

2. The option to take certain classes online.

These two accommodations, increasing the quantity of text-based information and text-based exchanges, made it easier for him to review things would otherwise go in one ear and disappear out the other. 

And the second accommodation eliminated the greatest challenges of group work: those spontaneous, in-person exchanges involving fast moving conversations and non-verbal communication.

But what about what is often the greatest challenge of all in moderate autism: comprehension, especially reading comprehension. Here, from Out in Left Field, is a follow-up post to the last one.

“Me Talk Pretty One Day” one day?

What does it mean, then, to give a special needs student like J meaningful access to the general education curriculum?

Meaningful access includes things like enlarged texts, braille translations, and screen readers (for visually impaired students); FM systems and sign language interpreters (for deaf students); and special keyboards and touchscreens for students with fine motor impairments. None of these devices or translations, after all, simplifies the underlying content or the underlying academic tasks.

As I suggested below, meaningful access is not attained by accompanying and/or replacing real works of literature with simplified, “no fear” counterparts, Sparknotes summaries, movie versions, or story board representations of plot and character.

Meaningful access also isn’t provided by “differentiated” group work in which the other students do the more challenging tasks. Nor is it attained by teachers and aides who, often with the best of intentions, model and scaffold and prompt students through tasks without fading these supports until the child achieves independent mastery. One parent once commented here that her son “used to come home with his school work essentially DONE by his helper–who thought she was ‘helping’ him.”

The latter sorts of “accommodations,” all of which involve eliminating some or all of the academic challenge, risk interfering with learning rather than fostering it—and can easily (especially in today’s pedagogically-challenging, heterogeneous-ability classrooms) become excuses not to teach what needs to be taught.

True access means abandoning the popular notion of “multiple pathways” to “demonstrate understanding” in a one-size-fits-all calendar-age-based curriculum. True access means adjusting, not the pathways towards predetermined ends, but the ends themselves. It means meeting the child at his current cognitive level—his Zone of Proximal Development. It is by starting here, as the research shows, that he will make the most real progress.

Where language-impaired students are concerned, true access means assigning texts at the students’ actual reading levels. The trick, though, is to find books that the students find interesting rather than babyish. A language-impaired 11th grader may not enjoy reading Roald Dahl novels, for example.

Many people, including Auntie Ann here, have commented on how much more complex classic texts are than their contemporary counterparts. For precisely this reason, more contemporary texts, with their shorter, simpler sentences and less complex vocabulary, are probably the place to start. In lieu of Shakespeare plus No- Fear Shakespeare plus Kenneth Branagh, how about some Kurt Vonnegut or David Sedaris, or…?

If it were up to me, I would happily deprive J and others like him of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Poe and all the other stars of the classical cannon in order to provide meaningful access to “Cat’s Cradle” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

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