Stephanie Nuner explains the importance of Autism Awareness Month, highlighting the misconceptions surrounding autism and the need to not limit children with special needs. She emphasizes that every student is unique, and talks about the different populations that fall under special education, including gifted and talented students with autism. Nuner encourages educators to use the available technology to help all students, even those who are non-verbal.
(0:07) To honor Autism Awareness Month in the United States, Rich Dixon of Hāpara introduces Stephanie Nuner. She is a Special Education Specialist at University High School in Waco, Texas, which is part of Waco Independent School District.
What is Autism Awareness Month? Why do we focus on it?
(1:04) Rich would like Stephanie to share the importance of Autism Awareness Month. She says that Autism Awareness Month is incredible because for so long there have been many different titles related to autism, and there are a lot of misconceptions. Autism is a spectrum; it’s an umbrella. People previously used the terms PPD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) and Asperger’s Syndrome, but now those refer to autism and the spectrum. There are different opinions, and some people also refer to the terms high-functioning and low-functioning. But regardless, there is a spectrum of people that do different things.
What does the research say about characteristics of children who exhibit autistic tendencies?
(2:07) A lot of people that are researching this are finding that there is crossover for a lot of tendencies. For instance, Stephanie has a child with ADHD and a child with autism, and she sees traits that definitely cross over. Both children have hyper-focus, for example, which is a tendency of both.
Why is it important not to limit children with special needs?
(3:29) Stephanie emphasizes that autism does not define her child. She says that special needs titles do not define any person or child, and we are all unique human beings. Titles, especially those that deal with the brain, do not define any of us. This is something Stephanie wants to make clear, particularly for educators who have a special needs student coming into the classroom.
Why else is it important to have Autism Awareness Month or awareness of special needs?
(4:11) Stephanie says that we need to make sure we’re not limiting children. For her, it’s such a privilege to be able to work with all students and all special services because she is able to work with all exceptionalities. For example, a student she works with has two exceptionalities: gifted and talented and autistic. He takes advanced classes, and he’s able to push his social skills.
Stephanie says that a lot of times we may see a title and forget that special education is not just for the severely and profoundly disabled students. It’s also for health-impaired students, such as those with cerebral palsy, deaf or hard of hearing or visually-impaired students. They all qualify under special education, and it does not limit their level of intelligence or their ability at all.
(5:52) Stephanie emphasizes again that Autism Awareness Month makes us aware of a student who is under an umbrella or a spectrum and that we cannot limit these children ever. She says that these beautiful human beings need to be pushed, need to be taught and they can learn.
How can technology today help all learners?
(6:14) For instance, Stephanie explains that nonverbal students are thinking so much. Giving them technology, such as a word board, helps them express themselves. It’s amazing to see them be able to communicate with words.
What are some examples of accommodations that educators may come across to help their learners?
(6:45) Stephanie gives some examples of accommodations that she shared with an educator. These include reminding the learner when the schedule changes, reminding the learner when the teacher won’t be at school, allowing the learner to wear noise-canceling headphones during a fire drill and making the learner aware before public speaking. Rich points out that some of the best accommodations could actually serve all students well.
What are some of the indicators of autism?
(8:45) Stephanie says there are many markers, but there are some behaviors an educator may see in the classroom. For instance, a learner may often line things up with a pattern. She also thinks there’s a rhythmic way that children with autism speak. Sometimes there’s a hesitancy in speech or no speech at all.
(09:55) There are also misconceptions that all children with autism don’t look you in the eye or don’t speak. But Stephanie feels that there is a visual hesitation to hold a gaze or initiate a gaze. There’s often a lack of social skills or inappropriate social skills. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on exactly what the indicator is. (10:43) There’s also hyper-focus, as she mentioned before. Or a child with autism may think more literally.
What are some tips for educators?
(11:50) Stephanie says that we should always ask our learners to grow, and we should talk to parents about the fact that growing is challenging. It’s also not a teacher’s job to diagnose. We’re just here to do observations or referrals. Observations also need to be based on data.
What can teachers do to help all of their learners succeed in the classroom?
(12:45) Rich would like to know how general education teachers can support their learners, including those who have not been diagnosed. Stephanie says that we need to meet our learners where they are. Everyone is different, and if a learner is struggling, figure out what they need. For example, a chatty student could succeed as a classroom helper. Expectations, policies and procedures also help all learners, including those who may have autism. It’s also helpful to take a challenging moment and turn it into a teachable moment. She also wants people to remember that differences in others aren’t bad; they’re just different.
Where can educators turn to for more resources?
(18:28) Rich wants to know where educators can turn for resources to take their learning a step further. Stephanie has turned to hospitals for resources. She also uses the excellent resources from Baylor University and Texas A&M. She says that any university that does research in the area of autism or special education can be helpful. Also, if parents need support, they can call their school district for resources.
Do you have a story to share about helping a student with autism be more successful?
(23:22) Rich asks Stephanie to share a success story. Stephanie says that she’s proud that she’s been able to work in this field a long time and has seen many people grow. She says that all students want to be included and accepted. Differentiation is the key to helping all children be more successful. Most importantly, we need to see every student’s gift.