Saturday, October 15, 2011

The neurotypical and the less-so

A few weeks back Tenured Radical had an important post on the ways that colleges and their faculty are (and are not) prepared for students who are on the autism spectrum. Right now, this may be a phenomenon that those of us at public colleges have the most familiarity with; in any case, I've taught an average of one student a year whom I'd identify as being on the high-functioning end of the autism/Aspergers spectrum.

But as I mentioned in my comment at TR's, I haven't generally had any more trouble with these students than I might have with a neurotypical student who for one reason or another needed extra attention or had to be gently-but-firmly told how discussion worked in our classroom. The kids on the spectrum whom I've taught are often among my smartest and most participatory students, and though they sometimes sit in the front row and blurt out answers without raising their hands, or want to monopolize conversation, or get audibly upset when they feel reproved or ignored, I've mostly learned how to deal with those things. Because honestly? In every class I have at least a couple of students, neurotypical or otherwise, who are works-in-progress or diamonds-in-the-rough or whatever metaphor you prefer for students who have equally extreme strengths and weaknesses. Autism-spectrum students present a specific set of challenges, sure, but from a teacher's perspective I wouldn't say they're more serious challenges than those presented by students who are manic-depressive, or going through problems at home, or who are just reallyreallyreally high strung.

The PROBLEM with spectrum-y students--or at least the students I've had--is therefore not the students themselves. It's the other students in the class.

By and large, the other students do not like the students on the spectrum. They sigh, roll their eyes, grumble, and make faces indicating how annoying, weird, or troublesome they find them. Once, I had a (very bright and otherwise very nice) student grab me after class to ask whether there wasn't something I could "do about" the front-row blurter. "You're handling her very well," she said. "I know it's not your fault. But she's really distracting the rest of us."

These students seem not to understand that the person they perceive as annoying is genuinely wired differently; instead, they experience her as arrogant, nonresponsive, or deliberately rude. And since disabilities are a confidential matter, there's no way for me to fully communicate why they should cut their classmate some slack or even reach out and try to get to know her.

So I'm asking the rest of you: have you experienced this problem? And if so, what have you done about it?


FLG said...

Even if the student in question is wired differently, does it change the fact that it is generally considered inappropriate to blurt out answers? Usually the difficulty spectrum students have is not the inability to stop doing the inappropriate behavior, but a lack of awareness that it is inappropriate. So, if you explained to that student that the appropriate behavior is to raise your hand, then that might help.

That being said, Ive been blurting out answers in my MBA class because Ive been getting so frustrated with the pace of the class and want to move it along, so I probably come off like a jerk too. But in my case I guess I kinda of am being a jerk, as I am aware of the social cues against it.

life_of_a_fool said...

I have nothing useful to say, but I do think this is a great question. My bigger problem with class dynamics is often not with the "problem" students (autism-spectrum-related or not) but with how other students respond to the "problem" students. (o.k. sometimes there are students who seem to bug me more than anyone else too).

The sighing and eye-rolling is so totally inappropriate, regardless of the reason, that maybe the only response is to respond directly to that behavior, rather than to try to explain the other student''s behavior. I have used the "you need to learn to deal with other people without letting it get to you so much" line on students complaining about other students before. I don't know if that's a right or wrong response, but it's what has come out.

meg said...

I talk about discussion on the first day of class -- blurting, interrupting, contributing enough, contributing too much, etc. And then I follow up with a little speech on aneurotypicality for the neurotypical, starting with, "I want to talk about this now, before we know if we have anyone who has ADHD or is on the autism spectrum."

I talk about different wiring, and self-control, and frustration, and general lack of getting it, and then I talk about how I deal with it, and their part in helping palliate inappropriate behaviors (someone talks too much? You should talk more!).

For the most part it works really well, except in those cases where the afflicted student has trouble controlling hir anger and frustration. Then I have to step in.

Flavia said...

FLG: generally I'm able to get the blurters after I've talked to them a few times about raising their hands, letting other people talk, etc. (and if it takes them a while, I just talk over them/ignore them until they remember to raise their hands). What I mean is that even when autism-spectrum students are behaving basically well, students still act like they're more disruptive than they actually are, I think because they find them "weird." And my impression is that it's experienced as a visceral, social dislike, based on the spectrum-y students' perceived unwillingness to be socially normal.

But LoaF is totally right that this behavior also merits a response, at least when it's really overt. Thanks for the suggestion.

And Meg: the pro-active approach is obviously the best one. Must file this away for next semester, and future ones. Thanks!

Flavia said...

Just wanted to add this, after Anastasia's link and post: I didn't mean to imply that my neurotypical students are being actual jerks to the spectrum-y students. The sighing, eyerolling, etc. is usually pretty subtle, and often may only be visible to me, the one at the front of the classroom (and the one who's likely most attuned to or anxious about the classroom dynamic).

But although it's subtle, I still think it's a problem--just one that's harder for me to address directly.

Historiann said...

What LoaF said, mostly. I will just add that in cases like this I really appreciated teaching at a Catholic univeristy. (My former position and one visiting lecturer position were at Catholic universities.) I had one notably not-neurotypical student about a dozen years ago at a Catholic university, and I so appreciated the fact that all of the other neurotypical students were incredibly patient and remained friendly with the sometimes-disruptive student, even when he said or did things that were funny or even very strange. I think the fact that we tended to have smaller classes (at least no large lecture classes) and that the university made some effort to inculcate what it meant to be part of a Catholic community made my life easier as an instructor in cases like this.

That said, I find that my students at my large public uni have remained polite and patient with their fellow students, although I don't recall having non-neuro-typical students very often here.

Jackie said...

I wonder if you could use these students' own terms to phrase your discussion of their behavior. Their facial expressions and subtle eye-rolling are distracting YOU, just as they are complaining about being distracted. They should also think about the impression they are making on you and other students--is that how they would act in a professional setting?

Amandible Bones said...

SLP-in-training chiming in here (and late, but psyched to see a post relevant to my field!). I would say your responsibility as instructor begins and ends with what you've been doing - guiding their classroom behavior in terms of taking part in discussions and answering questions, just like you would with a neurotypical student.

As far as the reactions of other students - they're still transitioning from teenage years to adulthood. They haven't (usually) quite realized that they aren't walking down the road of life alone; that being an adult means you're part of a community and that the best possible adult behavior helps to build that community rather than isolating, and rejecting, the different. Some of them haven't even grasped this simpler concept: making faces, rolling your eyes, or sighing dramatically in a professional setting is even less acceptable than talking out of turn or monopolizing a discussion.

Other than saying something (or writing on the syllabus) about being respectful of everyone's different "communcation styles" at the beginning of the semester, I would say you're doing the right things. If a student approaches you directly like that again, I would says something (gently and kindly) like, "As you become an adult, you will find that you cannot control the behavior of others, only your reaction to it. Try not to let someone else's way of communicating keep you from enjoying the class."