For ten days at the end of August I embarked on a working tour of New Zealand in collaboration with Autism NZ. Every two years for the past six years I have visited New Zealand for different arrangements of speaking tours and conference presentations, often with a focus on sharing my particularly variety of focus on utilising the special interests of our students on the spectrum in the classroom, most frequently by way of utilising iPad as central tool in being able to fluidly make this happen across different educational and home settings. This time, rather than just talking about it, the request from Autism NZ was if I could actually go into schools this time and put my words into action, not just talking autism pedagogy, but actually implementing it in classrooms across New Zealand. This was a thrilling proposition that I couldn't say no to.
I arrived in Wellington to start the tour by attending a national sciences challenge workshop facilitated by The University of Auckland, part of 'A Better Start' initiative to formulate national research plans for autism intervention strategies. I was a co-facilitator at the workshop, primarily contributing towards the educational side of the discussions. One of the considerations I discussed was a trend in professional development that is moving away from strict autism pedagogy and more towards universal design for learning principles for teacher autism education: that is, when addressing autism pedagogy professional development with schools, a more successful approach in some instances is to approach the focus as more a question of accessibility and universal design for learning for all students, to see all students as representing the whole gambit of individual needs in the classroom, and so to teach in a style that represents this individuality across the board rather than necessarily focusing exclusively on autism education, which can sometimes create a sense of 'I am a teacher working with a class of 95% mainstream students and 5% students with autism'. We might want to foster, rather, an environment of 'I am a teacher working with a class of 100% unique students who each need individual learning plans' with a focus on then teaching teachers how this can functionally occur in the classroom. This is of considerable importance to consider as the dialogue of special needs in the mainstream becomes more and more pronounced.
The two days following this workshop were the Autism NZ 2016 Conference event, which I attended with our Aspect Director of Education, Dr Trevor Clark, who was speaking on our schools educational framework and also to his new book on twice exceptional children with autism, 'Exploring Giftedness and Autism: A Study of a differentiated program for autistic savants'. I was invited to deliver a keynote based on my recent essay, 'Kindness Savant Will Pixelate', the slides for which can be downloaded here. I broke the keynote into four parts; speaking to the utilisation of special interests in the classroom in reference to my Special Interests Accessibility Component framework (with mention of how this can apply to recent interests such as Pokémon Go); speaking to how we get to know our students as well as possible (with extended discussion of the Zones of Regulation program); speaking to the concept of the Edutaining Behaviour Detective and how when we teach we need to balance both modes of engaging our students alongside having an eye for diagnosing functional needs and interpreting what particular behaviours are communicating to us; and speaking further to the idea noted above with regards to the function of universal design for learning principles in the education of students on the autism spectrum.
After the conference in Wellington was finished, I quickly commenced on my school visit program. The schedule was to visit ten schools across four days, followed by an afternoon lecture given at an additional school at the end of the day. I felt the excited, nervous energy of a casual teacher again, going into classrooms of students I'd never met before, ready to pull out all the stops in order to deliver the most engaging lessons possible. Unlike my casual teaching days, however, I was visiting up to three schools a day, with class sizes of sixty students at times, often with fifteen teachers and parents standing at the back of the room observing - that's just the sort of high pressure environment I love! I had developed a learning activity focus on using iPad to create sound art music compositions with a focus on recording the sounds of New Zealand playgrounds and creating melodies and soundscapes that reflect life in school. You can read more about the tools used and the way I introduced the learning activity to students on this website I prepared for schools here.
The results were absolutely fantastic, I had the most amazing time, and I believe the students did too. I hoped that through the learning experience I demonstrated how a tool like iPad can be taken out of the classroom like some magical blank canvas that allows students to engage with it and explore the world with it in an infinitely fascinating variety of ways that help to illuminate how to provide with students multiple modes of representing and constructing their learning. We used accessibility components of the iPad, we used accessible music tools like Skoog and MaKey MaKey and fantastic iOS apps like GarageBand and Musyc, and we ran around the playground on the sunny days and recorded inside the classroom on rainy days, making all manner of compositions. Check out the following short video of one of our jam sessions on my first day of visits:
Some of the session I spent with schools were not spent on this sound art project, but were rather more consultative with teachers, doing a version of the Educational Outreach work in do in Australia. I met with many families and teachers, discussing strategies for implementing autism pedagogy in communication across home and school, using tools such as ChoiceWorks to help foster visual communication strategies across environments, and to be able to quickly generate new visual timetables, waiting boards and emotional choice visuals. As part of the afternoon lectures at schools across Wellington and Auckland I also gave demonstrations of some key iOS tools such as ChoiceWorks, Pictello, Book Creator and the new Zones of Regulation app 'Exploring Emotions'. The content of the afternoon lectures also utilised part of the 'Kindness Savant Will Pixelate' keynote I gave at the Autism NZ conference. It was an absolute joy to be able to visit so many different schools, meet so many amazing students, parents, teachers and therapists and gain further insights into the educational experience across so many different spheres.
One of the persistent themes was squarely focused on the challenge of addressing such varied learning needs in the mainstream classroom. Interest in autism specific education options were very pronounced across many conversations with educators and parents I had across the ten days I was in New Zealand, which very much speaks to the challenges aforementioned of considering how to best meet the needs of children with autism at school. The most singular vocal consideration that kept returning was the consideration of 'choice' and being able to tailor educational options as best suit the individual needs of each child. Also, to not necessarily accept the given narrative at times that mainstream is always the best support for students on the spectrum to acquire skills such as social and emotional regulation, for example, as if these skills will somehow be absorbed by osmosis, particularly given that we know that students on the spectrum require explicit instruction in these areas as they are not necessarily seeking out social data when observing others. A surmounting challenge is, to my mind, that mainstream educational options are not always well versed in being spaces established within the principles of universal design, but rather they are structured around more singular designs, which then requires a need to bolt special education accessibility on the side of these classrooms in ways which precludes the very notion of inclusion. This is, of course, a statement too towards the nature of some components of mainstream society with a mindset of ability or disability. These are questions and considerations that we must continue to respectfully consider in dialogue with our students, parents, teachers and others as we step by step progress towards new evolutions of the educational space.