How I Failed as the Teacher of an Autistic Student

Even after carefully following the guidelines that he had given me, I couldn’t help him succeed in class.

Every August, the week before classes begin is a parade of meetings for teachers. Meetings with administrators and colleagues fill the five or so days teachers have to get organized before students flood the school. This year, my roster included a student we’ll call H., one among 30 in my fall journalism class. H. would be more comfortable on the first day of school if he could meet me beforehand, his guidance counselor told me.

He walked into our first meeting eager to introduce himself and his favorite topic: comic books. Students with autism typically have an area of hyper focus, and his was Marvel heros. I hoped to use that topic to build a bridge to our curriculum for H. He liked to read and write stories, a seemingly good fit for the elective journalism class I taught at our public high school in suburban Texas. With his buzz cut and backpack, he looked like any other high-school junior.

But he wasn’t—isn’t—like any other student I’ve had before. H. is autistic, and during our two months together, and despite having taught several students with varying degrees of autism, I would fail him as a teacher.

From the moment he walked into our meeting in his counselor’s office that August day, H. was talkative and cheerful. He gave me some insight into the ways he worked best in the classroom—which strategies he’d used in the past.

He was more likely to absorb information if it was presented to him in a written form, not spoken. To complete a task, he’d need instructions in short, discrete steps. He gave me his “red card,” a ticket out of my classroom to the school’s special education room where he could calm down if necessary.

I eagerly took notes and mentally reviewed the introductory unit I’d planned to teach. I was sure the smattering of journalism history would be a breeze for H., but decided to rethink the news writing portion. I knew that my classroom presentations and assignments would need to be structured differently for H., but I was comfortable with that—good teachers are supposed to be flexible. Presenting material in a variety of ways could only benefit all students in my class.

History during our first week together went smoothly. H. dutifully took notes during a PowerPoint on the 18th-century journalist John Peter Zenger and the establishment of a free press in the U.S. H. frequently raised his hand with off-topic questions, or to make disruptive comments and misplaced attempts at humor during an admittedly mundane presentation. But these weren’t anything I couldn’t redirect with basic classroom management. We were off to a promising start.

All work for my course is done during the 90-minute class period, with no homework assigned. Best practices in teaching often dictate shifting activities, from a lecture to working in pairs, to writing, back to the lecture during the class period to keep interest high and students on track. But those transitions were precisely what H. struggled with.

Before class, I’d write the daily agenda on the whiteboard to keep questions from all students about the day’s assignments to a minimum. Somehow this presentation of the itinerary, even in a written format, didn’t work for H. Before the bell rang, as he paced in the back of the classroom, I would talk through the schedule with him privately. Usually that helped, but not always.

As the semester progressed, H.’s mother and I developed a steady correspondence via email—I gave her a few days’ notice on what our upcoming units would be and the potential hurdles I saw for H, and she’d role-play at home to prepare him for what would happen during class.

One week, our class reviewed timely news photos and considered why some were published. We talked about a recent photo that showed a drowned toddler, a jarring image that underscored the plight of refugees in the ongoing global crisis. While the rest of the class approached the material soberly, H. made off-color comments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time the rest of the class and I had had to ignore his nonexistent filter.

Then, an assignment that I thought would be in H.’s wheelhouse proved beyond his reach. Students were supposed to read the school paper and answer five opinion questions about stories in the issue. It met what I thought were the criteria for a successful assignment for H., allowing him to read silently at his own pace and answer a small number of written questions.

I was stunned and frustrated when he turned in the assignment with “I dunno” in response to each question. His mother was equally exasperated when I sent her his work, but she soon learned what the problem was: H. had never read the school paper, and didn’t grasp that its stories were about his peers.

News writing also proved to be the bugaboo I had anticipated. In order to learn the basic inverted pyramid style that is the cornerstone of our class, a typical student would accept a handout of information as “fact”: the who, what, where, when, and why of a news item. But to H., those weren’t facts. Abstract thinking was not his strength. What he turned in—a single paragraph without the “facts” and with no quotes—bore no relation to the assignment that the rest of the class turned in.

Other times, H. didn’t understand the assignment well enough to get started in class, even after I’d used every trick I had, writing out the instructions in short, clear steps. He’d grow frustrated, rocking back and forth, exclaiming loudly that the assignment was “too hard.” Whatever was too hard about the assignment always remained a mystery to me. Because his mother was so active in his learning, I was able to allow H. to complete his class work at home with Mom’s support. Sometimes she was able to tease the difficulty out of him a strand at a time.

Our system crumbled during the feature writing lesson. For the assignment, students were paired to interview each other and then write a short feature story about their classmates. H. and his partner Olivia sat in a quiet corner and took turns as subject and interviewer. His mother and he had practiced together to prepare, but H. monopolized the exchange in class and took few notes about Olivia.

At the next class meeting, he was supposed to write about her in a feature story. He had his scant notes, class guidelines on feature story structure, and a few examples of stories. But when it was time to write, he started in on the familiar refrain of “it’s too hard,” rocking back and forth.

I asked what he needed that I hadn’t already given him; he couldn’t answer. He rocked harder and started to flail, signs that his frustration level was rising. In an effort to de-escalate, I sat with him and quietly put my hands on his notes, his guidelines, and his examples, showing him he had everything he needed. A classmate spoke up, trying to help; H. replied with a low growl, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”

At that point, I played the red card—it was time for H. to go calm down in another setting. But he wouldn’t leave. A classmate went to the special education office and brought back a teacher to assist. She talked quietly with him and helped him pack up his belongings. Despite his protests, she walked with him out of the classroom. It did nothing to calm him down. I learned later that, frustrated to the point of explosion, H. became combative and had to be held back to keep him from charging a teacher in the special education classroom.

He just didn’t understand what I had expected him to write. Because I couldn’t find the words to help him understand an assignment, I put my students and my colleagues in danger.

That Friday was his last day in my classroom; a committee removed him from the journalism class and changed his schedule to include physical education.

Like most teachers in my generation, I haven’t received any formal instruction in working with autistic students. Even with unparalleled parental support, I wasn’t able to make my class work for H.

I’m not sure who was more disappointed.