Thursday 23 March 2023

Ways to teach our autistic kids about the natural world


Teaching anything to my autistic kids can be a challenge.  Even when it's an area that they are interested in it can be challenging to support them to learn when they have such significant difficulties with communication.  David is in Yr 7 according to his age but in many ways he's operating like a child who is in Yr1.  He speaks in only a few words and needs to be shown most things to learnt them as he only understands some of what is said. 

He can copy a complex series of actions, but following instructions or understanding language is a whole other ball game.  So how do we help him learn.  Let's take the example of learning about the natural world. 

What different animals are there and what are they like? 

Labelling is where a child learns the names of items... or in this case animals.  It's common for children with autism to be difficulty generalising and labelling things correctly.  For example, if I showed David a picture of a brown bear, he may chose to decide in his head that all bears were brown (being too specific) or that all brown animals were bears (not specific enough).  To help with this we can show and label different bears from different places to help him identify different animals correctly, photos, pictures, TV or even we've had augmented reality animal flashcards that works with his iPad.

We can help by showing what makes the animals unique in some cases.  For example, polar bears have thick fur to help them endure the cold temperatures in the Arctic. Kangaroos have powerful hind legs, which allow them to jump great distances, whereas cheetahs have sharp claws that they use to capture their prey.  Watching animals on shows and programmes can help show their natural variation or even a natural selection video lesson for kids might work for some.

Where do different animals live?

A matching game is a great way of working through the different habitats around our world.  Videos, images and diagrams can all help our kids match words with animals, and animals with places. 

We can look at the habitats that animals can be found in, such as the rainforest, the desert, and the tundra, and how animals are able to adapt their lifestyles to survive in these different types of environments. For instance, desert snakes have a special adaptation that allows them to go for extended periods of time without drinking water, they absorb moisture from the prey they consume and store it in their bodies.

Visit the Animals

Many people with autism need to experience things themselves to really understand them.  For example it's not always easy to understand size when looking at photos or on a screen but it's very evident when actually seeing a giraffe that they are in fact very tall. David absolutely loved feeding giraffes when we visited Columbus Zoo last summer.  

When the children are looking at a giraffe, for instance, you could explain to them how the animal’s long neck enables it to reach high branches that other animals are unable to reach. You could also talk about how the zebra’s stripes help it blend in with its environment, making it more difficult for potential enemies to spot it.  We can talk about it like a game of hide and seek.

You can also try to encourage the children to ask questions about the animals and the behaviours that they exhibit.  Whether it's as simple as the elephant is having a shower or the lion is eating his food.

Animals can often hold the attention of children with autism.  They can unpredictable or loud and this can sometimes make them seem scary but learning about them will help reduce this.  Many people with autism and other social challenges have connections with animals.  Whether the animals are real or even stuffed animal toys they can bring a sense of peace and calmness to a child or even adult on the spectrum. 

This is for several different reasons, and the reasons make sense. Think about all of the people who don’t have autism who have a love for animals!  Learning about it can help them further develop this and enjoy the natural world around them. 

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