Autism in Lutheran Schools?

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Autism in Lutheran schools? Yep, it happens all the time.

You might think that just because you work in a Lutheran school, you’ll never encounter a child with autism. Then you might be mistaken. Remember how we talked about something called the autism spectrum? Included in that spectrum is a very broad range of abilities and behaviors. Many students who are identified as being on the autism spectrum can and are finding success in our Lutheran schools.

Some Lutheran schools have special education programs and have people in place to more readily facilitate the services needed for students with autism. Other schools have students with autism even though they don’t have any extra personnel. The reality is, however, that students with more severe behaviors and limitations often are not able to attend most of our Lutheran schools because their needs are more intense and require personnel and classrooms that we just cannot provide. The guidelines for being identified as autistic, however, have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Today, a student identified as having autism spectrum disorder could very well have many strong abilities that would make a Lutheran school a very good choice.

Social skills and language

All students on the autism spectrum struggle with social skills and language in their own unique combinations. Just as a cord is made of individual strands, so too, language and social skills make a single cord. Yes, we can separate the two, but inevitably they are intricately intertwined and much stronger when they work together. When the strands aren’t connected or woven together properly, the cord can lose some of its effectiveness.

Many students on the autism spectrum struggle with making eye contact. Our culture deems good eye contact as very important, yet for people with autism, it is often asking too much for them to look you in the eye, listen to what you are saying, and find the right word to use all at the same time. Looking at your face, listening, and talking are three distinct tasks that require a lot of energy to accomplish. While doing those things simultaneously might come easily to you, it doesn’t for people on the autism spectrum.

I’m not saying that we should never encourage good eye contact; it’s just that there need to be times when it isn’t the top priority. Never force a child to look you directly in the eye, especially if it’s a time of great stress or anxiety (like learning something new or when there is a conflict). Yes, it’s important to practice appropriate eye contact, but choose less stressful times to emphasize it, and designate specific practice times.

Students with autism sometimes seem quirky or eccentric because the cadence of their speech might be stilted or because they focus on unusual topics to an extreme degree. Some students may learn to read very early and spend a lot of time reading above their age level, acquiring the vocabulary of literature and trying to use it in the context of casual interactions. When adults do this, we are impressed and think to ourselves how smart they are. When children do it, however—especially in interactions with other children—it can be off-putting and set them apart.

Taking turns in conversation or seeing things from other people’s perspective are also areas that people with autism struggle with. We take for granted that children develop some of these skills when they are young, but for the child on the autism spectrum, those skills don’t naturally fall into place. It doesn’t mean the child can’t learn them; it just means that we have to be more deliberate in our teaching of these and other social skills.

Then there’s the matter of idioms, jokes, words with multiple meanings, and sarcasm. All these prove problematic and illusive for children with autism. Be careful how you use these in class. I’m not saying you should eliminate them entirely; I’m saying be careful and remember that if you’re going to use an idiom, you’d best teach the autistic child what you mean. If you say it’s “raining cats and dogs,” the student may go to the window to look for the cats and dogs falling out of the sky. Related to this is an inflexibility of thought, which is why it is a struggle for children with autism to understand multiple meanings or nuances in meaning in social situations. Their understanding of something that is “hot” is that it will burn when touched; they may not understand all the myriad of slang meanings that might be associated with the word hot.

Think of the language of the playground and how filled with nuance and speed it is. Kids regularly make up games with their own complex sets of rules, spoken and unspoken, and execute them all in a short twenty-minute recess. The child with both social and language deficits cannot even begin to keep up with that kind of sophistication. This results in misunderstandings, anxiety, and meltdowns. As you monitor these types of events, resist judging the surface behavior. Once calm has been restored, dig a little deeper. Often, something much more complex, many times related to language deficits and misread social cues, is causing what we see as inappropriate interactions.

None of these issues is unique to children with autism in Lutheran schools. What is unique is the way we have the opportunity to respond. I am confident that teachers outside of Lutheran schools respond as we do with love and compassion to students with autism. In the Lutheran school setting, however, we also have the great privilege of being able to share the love and forgiveness of Jesus. Autism cannot impede the work of the Holy Spirit.

As it turns out, more blog posts are needed to cover this topic. In the next series of posts, I’ll take a look at autism spectrum disorder in Lutheran schools and how that relates to other issues, like behavior, attention, academics and technology.


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About the Author

Lisa Krenz

Lisa Krenz is an editor at Concordia Publishing House. She has almost thirty years of experience in Lutheran schools as a special education teacher, consultant, and parent. Even though it’s taken many forms, reaching every child with the Gospel has been her passion from the beginning. She lives with her husband, Stephen, and two teen-age children, Joel and Anna, in Hoffman, Illinois, where her husband is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and School. You can read her latest posts here.

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