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Girls and Autism: Tips and Activities to Support Your Learners

group of girls and boys at school

What is autism? You may or may not have taught individuals in your English language teaching classrooms with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is linked to brain development and can affect the way learners socialise, communicate, and behave.

Did you know? Many girls go undiagnosed with autism or are diagnosed later in life because they present differently to boys. By this, I mean they behave in a different way that may cover up the signs. For boys, their autism is often externally expressed, whereas girls tend to conceal or internalise what is worrying them.

 

Masking or camouflaging: what do they mean?

When a girl ‘masks’ or ‘camouflages’ she essentially modifies her behaviour. This might be in an attempt to fit in with her peers, for example copying the behaviour or voice of a classmate, in order to be similar to the group. It may also be her way of hiding her autism or the anxiety she is feeling in order to appear calm on the surface. This means girls can spend a lot of time covering up their emotions, which must be extremely exhausting (and as teachers we certainly know how this feels!)

In fact, girls with autism are often very good at making eye contact and holding conversations, which you don’t typically expect with autism. And unlike boys, their special interest subjects tend to be similar to their ‘neurotypical’ peers, for example horses or boy bands, making it difficult at times to spot autistic traits.

 

A few tips for including learners with autism: 

1) Listen

Every girl (and boy) with autism is different. They often say their brains are wired differently so they may learn in unconventional ways. It is important to remember that what works for one learner might not necessarily work for another.

2) Support

Statistically, learners with special educational needs are more likely to develop mental health issues. As we know, there are a multitude of pressures on young girls, so openly discussing mental health and managing anxiety is essential.

3) Strengthen

Girls with autism tend to struggle with self-worth and self-belief. Helping girls become aware of their sensory issues and emotions and how to regulate these helps them understand themselves and others.

4) Talk, talk, talk…

As teachers, we’re pretty good at this one! In order to overcome the lack of knowledge in this area, we need to discuss autism. We need to speak to colleagues and parents/carers, search for and share information, but most importantly we need to talk to our students and learn from them.

 

Practical activities (expanded from Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs)

REMEMBER: Not every activity works for every student, it’s important to get to know your learners and understand what works best for them.

1) You’re the expert

Ask students to prepare a presentation on their special interest subject. Ask the rest of the class to ask questions. If learners don’t feel comfortable presenting to the class, why not get them to video and edit a short clip? Or run a Facebook Live, you could direct the conversation, but this may be less daunting for those who are anxious as they can join from elsewhere.

2) Name the feeling

Make pairs of cards with 1) photos of people expressing different feelings (according to students’ age and ability and 2) cards with the words that best describe the feelings.

Older students can play this game as ‘pelmanism’.

3) Pelmanism: Create pairs of cards where one card has a picture of a vocabulary item, and the other has the written word. Students place the cards face down on the table and take it in turns trying to find a matching pair by turning over two cards at a time. If players find a match, they keep it and have another go. If they don’t, they turn the cards face down again. Older students can practise homophones or homonyms, or match verbs with their tense forms.

 

Bonus activity: Tell me a story

Social stories and/or comic strips are a great way to engage learners. They can help children with autism in a number of ways, from teaching them how to behave in certain situations to developing their social skills. Why not get your students to draw or design stories of their own?

 

Want to find out more about autism and special educational needs? Get your hands on our Inclusive Practices position paper:

Download the position paper

 


References

  • Autism.org.uk.(2020) Autism Support – Leading UK Charity – National Autistic Society [online]. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk
  • Carpenter, B, Happé, F, and Egerton, J. (2019) Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. New York: Routledge
  • Delaney, M. (2016) Into the Classroom: Special Educational Needs. 1st ed: Oxford University Press
  • Sutherland, R, Hodge, A, Bruck, S, Costley, D, Klieve, H (2017) Parent-reported differences between school-aged girls and boys on the autism spectrum. Volume: 21 issue 6: 785-794.

 

Leanne Atherton is a further education lecturer with experience of teaching both in the UK and internationally. She qualified in post 16 education at City of Bath College and has ELT experience teaching young learners in Thailand and aboriginal students in Australia. She holds a TEFL qualification, a PCGE PCET and is currently studying for her Masters of Education (Special Educational Needs) in Oxford.


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Selecting, Adapting and Designing Materials for Learners with Dyslexia | Jon Hird

ELT publishers are more and more producing material appropriate for learners with dyslexia. This mainly consists of ‘dyslexic-friendly’ reading texts and tests, which are available from teachers’ resource sites. However, to gain maximum benefit from such material, it is important for us as teachers to have an awareness of what dyslexia actually is, how it can impact on learning, and the implications of this for material design.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is primarily a result of issues with working memory, which put simply is the ability to hold and recall information long enough to perform an operation using this information. There may also be issues with other related functions such as focus (avoiding attention displacement and distraction) and effort (remembering to remember). As a result, the fundamental issue for most learners with dyslexia is difficulty processing and remembering information. Other typical characteristics include difficulties with maintaining concentration and remaining on task. As well as affecting many everyday activities, dyslexia affects general learning and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills.

Issues with literacy

Literacy issues tend to manifest initially mainly at word level in terms of word recognition and spelling. However, in most cases, a typical learner with dyslexia will over time ‘catch up’ with his or her non-dyslexic peers in terms of word recognition and spelling. However literacy issues may remain, but are more likely to be with sentence and then paragraph and essay level processing, planning, and organisation. Reading can also be hindered in a number of other ways. A dyslexic learner may find his or her eye drawn to other letters or words, or other distracting elements on the page, and he or she may easily lose their place in a text. Long multi-clause sentences may be problematic in terms of maintaining focus and remembering and processing the content. And the actual design, layout and font may be distracting and make the text difficult to follow and process.

Material selection, design, and adaptation

Modifying and adapting page design and the layout and format of texts and other language exercises can be a real help for a learner with dyslexia. However, while the majority of dyslexic learners are likely to have broadly similar issues, an adaptation to material that may work for one learner may not work for another and indeed may even have a negative effect. For example, for every dyslexic learner who finds images or other graphics on the page helpful in providing context, there may be another for whom they are a distraction. But however we adapt the material, one key principle that will benefit almost all dyslexic learners is to reduce the processing load. This can be done in a number of ways such as providing the learner with shorter and simplified reading texts and reducing the word count for their written work. For language activities and exercises, we can reduce the number of items in an exercise and/or the number of exercises or activities the student needs to do. We can also simplify the items by removing any extraneous content and focusing more just on key language or by modifying the item in other ways. Changing the exercise or activity type or its format can also help.

In my ELTOC webinar, we considered in more detail approaches to the design of materials such as texts, exercises and tests suitable for dyslexic learners of English. We looked at examples of available dyslexic-friendly ELT materials (such as those below) and also considered how we as teachers can identify potential difficulties with material and if necessary adapt existing materials and produce our own.

Click here to watch a recording of my webinar!

High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
High Spirits, Oxford University Press.
Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World, Oxford University Press.
English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia, Oxford University Press.

Jon Hird teaches English at the University of Oxford and is a teacher-trainer and ELT materials writer, with a particular interest in grammar, EAP and dyslexia, and learning English. As well as adapting material for learners with dyslexia, his recent books include Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses, Oxford EAP, Grammar and Vocabulary for the Real World and English Grammar for Italian Students with Dyslexia. Jon has a dyslexic son.