Creating an Autism-Friendly Educational Environment
By Isabelle Frances Morris
My journey with autism up until now begins and ends with horses. Watching a documentary about a young Autistic boy named Rowan who found healing in horses, I couldn’t help but see some of myself in this preschooler. The next day, sitting in a therapy session, my therapist brought up the movie saying, “there are a lot of things that remind me of you.” That was when I began looking into autism in earnest. Six months after this happenstance, I walked into an office in the middle of a suburban neighborhood on a Saturday, with a stack of papers in my hand—documents from as far back as 2000, as well as my own personal notes. After a few hours of tests, evaluations, histories, and endless questions, the examiner told me she didn’t “see it;” the ensuing meltdown probably helped my case. One impatient week later, a thick manila envelope arrived with a fifteen-page report detailing my idiosyncrasies enclosed. The conclusion: I’m Autistic. This formally confirmed what I’d felt—known—watching this four-year-old melt down. Instead of experiencing the confusion, anger, or grief many parents of newly diagnosed children feel, for me the diagnosis brought relief and brand new understanding of myself. I no longer thought there was something “wrong ” with me. Everything finally made sense.
Rowan’s dad, Rupert, a journalist by trade, produced the Horse Boy documentary that follows his family’s autism learning curve. I am far from being the only one who has benefitted from Rupert’s journey. In fact, this home-movie-on-steroids evolved into a promising alternative education model for Autistic children called Horse Boy Method. As its name suggests, Horse Boy Method uses horses to facilitate the teaching of Autistic children. Through research I hope to answer the question, “how are Autistics learning?” Further, I aim to learn how the Horse Boy Method came to be and why Rupert—who has no education or psychology background—was
so successful. To that end, I will first discuss what autism is. Next, I will explore Rupert’s path to creating the Horse Boy Method of teaching. From there I will turn my attention to the current educational models in both traditional mainstream and special education programs. Finally, I will compare and contrast Rupert’s approach to education with these current systems, and ask how Rupert’s journey can serve as a model of how we might look at education differently.
According to the American Psychological Association, autism spectrum disorder is defined as “the most severe developmental disability. Appearing within the first three years of life, autism involves impairments in social interactions—such as being aware of other people’s feelings—and verbal and nonverbal communication” (APA, 2017). In order to diagnose someone with autism, practitioners use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual fifth edition (DSM-V). The DSM-V criteria include: “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,” “deficits in nonverbal behavior… [e.g.] abnormalities in eye contact,” “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities,” “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements,” “insistence on sameness,” and “hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input” (CDC, 2013). In addition to the formal medical definitions above, many in the Autistic community have a slightly different yet parallel definition. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network provides the following definition on its website: “Autism is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population and is considered a developmental disability.” This perspective holds autism is a difference, not a deficit. In her book, Autism: What Does It Mean to Me? Catherine Faherty refers to it as “autism spectrum difference” (2014). I include so many examples because autism is a complex constellation of traits and an understanding of what autism is, and isn’t, is necessary in order to understand the arguments in this paper. Most people assume “the spectrum” is a linear one from “not very Autistic” to “super Autistic.” Another overly simple yet incredibly popular way of talking about the spectrum is labeling Autistics as either “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” These functioning labels carry significant weight in determining education placement of Autistic children. However, as these many characteristics demonstrate, this dichotomous way of thinking is inadequate and damaging. A better way to conceptualize the autism spectrum is by using the metaphor of a color wheel in which each color is a different trait, and one’s place on the spectrum is a unique blend of each (Burgess, 2016).
While this may seem like just semantics, understanding autism in this way informs approaches to education. This visualization calls attention to the fact Autistic individuals have varied strengths, abilities, learning styles, challenges, and required supports— just as neurotypical children do. Therefore, the research presented in this paper is not intended to be a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to education. Instead, I seek to highlight pitfalls of our current educational paradigm while presenting potential alternative ways of viewing education.
When beginning this research, I went straight to the source and contacted Rupert. During our conversation, Rupert gave an important insight into why he thinks what he does works. He told me, “It doesn’t work because I’m a clever neurotypical.” Instead, Rupert let his Autistic son call the shots. Letting go of preconceived agendas, Rupert simply followed Rowan around and learned from him. Although Rupert grew up training horses, bringing Rowan around horses wasn’t his idea. In fact, he’d be keeping Rowan away because he didn’t think he’d be safe around them. No, Rowan started the whole thing. One day Rowan bolted and threw himself on the ground under a neighbor’s horse, Betsy. Rupert noticed Betsy showing submissive behavior, so he followed Rowan’s lead and put him on her back. On the back of a horse became the place where Rowan’s meltdowns stopped and he began to use expressive verbal language. From the very beginning, Rupert let Rowan take the reins and learned from him. I believe realizing that he didn’t have all the answers—or even a few of them—and approaching Rowan as the expert on autism was critical to Rupert’s success, and the success of Horse Boy Method.
It is this deference to Autistic individuals as the autism experts that has allowed the Horse Boy Method to benefit so many on the spectrum. In the autism world, this is a novel, even radical, idea. However, I would argue that it shouldn’t be. As Rupert learned what worked and what didn’t for his son, a more formalized Horse Boy Method emerged. The guiding principles of the Horse Boy Method are: set up an environment to reduce stress, allow children to move and explore their environment, teach through “special interests,” and learn from the child. Three things must be in place before anyone can be ready to learn, neurotypical or not: proper sensory input, human environment, and physical state. Think about how hard it is to concentrate if it’s super cold in the classroom, or the class is right before lunch and you’re starving. Multiply that times twenty-three and you have the autistic experience.
Setting up an environment free from sensory triggers and stressors is the imperative first step. Without it, the Horse Boy Method would not be successful. Learning cannot happen when the body is under stress, so even the best, most empirically backed educational strategies fail without the proper environment. When the brain reacts to a perceived threat, blood is directed away from areas responsible for higher-level thinking, the frontal cortex, to the primitive regions that respond to fear and initiate fight or flight instincts. This biological process happens in all humans, but Autistics experience this fight-or-flight mode more often, more intensely, and need longer recovery than neurotypical counterparts thanks to a heightened cortisol response (Spratt et al., 2012). Therefore, when teaching Autistics, a low-stress environment is key. What does this environment look like? As far as possible this is in nature. Typical classrooms are filled with sensory triggers—fluorescent lights, scratchy uniforms, the smell of Expo markers, hard chairs, and 20 other kids’ pencils writing. Because we lack the ability to filter out the unimportant background sensory “noise,” we are prone to being overloaded with input. Our brains perceive this as danger and respond with cortisol. So not only do overstimulating environments disrupt our focus and attention, but there is a biological process precluding learning. Because other people’s bodies don’t react this way, and physiological
stress markers are invisible without specific tests, it can be easy for educators and parents to just assume that the child “isn’t applying themselves.” One way to mitigate the impact of sensory stress is to create a sensory-friendly environment, which for many Autistics is outside because our specific sensory triggers are largely absent in the natural environment. While I’m speaking generally, it is important to keep in mind this is not true for every person, or always true for someone. Outdoors is a general trend, but to make this really work, the system must be flexible enough to accommodate individuals’ sensory needs. I had the opportunity to visit a local Horse Boy practitioner named Joell who explained to me how she accommodates sensory differences. Joell keeps plenty of extra jackets, blankets, ice packs and hats on hand so that each individual can be as comfortable in the environment as possible. The usually fixed outdoor environment becomes less rigid with these accommodations.
Although the physical environment is an important component it is not the only aspect of the environment that matters. The attitudes and expectations of parents, practitioners, and volunteers heavily contribute to the level of safety the clients feel. While Autistics can have trouble putting words to feelings or knowing what they’re feeling, we many times intensely feel the emotions and energy of those around them. If teachers or parents are stressed, we’ll likely feel and react to it tenfold. The majority of Joell’s herd is made up of rescues from the racetrack or other careers; two horses are missing an eye, and all of the horses are at Square Peg ranch because they didn’t fit in somewhere else. The children Joell works with spend most of their lives in situations where they are the odd one out. At the ranch, they can connect to horses that are also lovable “misfits.” In talking to Joell, she made it clear that there were no expectations here. This was evidenced as a boy dressed like Luke Skywalker ran by. Joell told me stories about the time she ran after one boy all the way up into the hills, about the time one girl wanted to go faster and tried to get the horse to do it even though Joell had said no. The most miraculous part of all this is the unique acceptance Joell and the volunteers have for all who come to Square Peg. Joell also told me the little boy used to throw his helmet off the hill and the little girl had the diagnosis of oppositional-defiant disorder. Reactions or diagnoses like these tend to cause people to step back from these kids. Not Joell. She leans in. When she spoke of both children, she made sure to tell me how much she loved these kids. I’m emphasizing the human environment because it is often overlooked and we Autistics can be highly sensitive to it. Because autism is a manifestation of a disrupted nervous system, we often have trouble self-regulating actions and emotional states. Attempting to fit into the expectations of acting or looking “normal” is a huge tax on brain capacity, and the sense that we’re failing only makes self-regulation harder. By creating a space where not only children can be children, but they are fully allowed to look, act, and be Autistic, all of that energy being poured into fitting into others’ expectations can instead be harnessed for learning.
If all of this talk about horses sounds different from our current approaches to education, it’s because it is. In my discussion of traditional education, I am going to focus on the public school system because it serves the majority of children and is also most likely to be home to the more disadvantaged Autistics who don’t have the means for alternative specialty education programs. My discussion will be broken down into two parts, mainstream education and special education.
Traditional mainstream education is the most prototypical form of education. This type of education conjures images of desks in rows and memorizing times tables by rote. This was also my experience with education, not being diagnosed until the age of 19. Looking only at academic achievement, I was a perfect match to this school model that values verbal intelligence almost exclusively. Additionally, many things were easy for me because of my Autistic brain. Memorizing, logical reasoning, reading/writing, and pattern recognition required very little effort for me because of the way my brain is wired. Indeed, in many ways I benefited from this system that catered to my strengths. Looking at this metric alone, people tend to bestow upon me the “high-functioning” non-compliment. However, it also caused an enormous amount of boredom, unnecessary stress, and alienation. Throughout elementary school I asked my teachers to give me more work because I was bored; I only very rarely received differentiation. Content didn’t regularly cause me stress the way the environment did. Being asked to answer a question without having time to prepare a response terrifies me still. A room filled with posters or sitting by the noisy fish tank quickly overwhelmed me, often almost to the point of tears—as a senior in high school. An eighteen year old on the verge of tears because of the sound of a fish tank would likely be labeled “low-functioning.” Clearly Autism is much more complicated than these functioning labels allow for. Rather than educational difficulties, the most frustrating experiences were social in nature and recognizing I was different. I frequently corrected teachers and couldn’t understand why they reacted the way they did. Why did everyone always think I was being critical? I was just trying to be helpful.
I presented my history with mainstream education above as a case study. This is not meant to be representative of all Autistic’s experiences although many may identify with aspects of it because of our shared neurology. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, better known as IDEA, children are entitled to an education in public schools even if that means that the school must make accommodations for them. This federal law guarantees students education in the “least restrictive setting” that is appropriate for them, with mainstream classrooms considered the least restrictive setting possible (All Education Schools). For children who have an autism diagnosis, mainstream education can be tailored to their needs, to an extent, through an IEP. Examples of accommodations include using visual schedules, incorporating sensory activities during the day, providing small group instruction, facilitating communication through alternatives to verbal speech, limiting distractions, and many, many other adjustments depending on the individual’s needs (Wright, 2001).
Because of IDEA and its guaranteed access to education in the least restrictive setting, there is emphasis on mainstreaming as an end goal. In addition to the accommodations listed above, a common “treatment” either pursued by parents outside of school or provided in some form in schools themselves is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This therapy is routinely prescribed for Autistic individuals and is almost always the only option covered by insurance. Parents and schools use this as a method to get children ready for a “normal” classroom. Encouraging pro-social behavior often means disallowing a child to say “no,” not a great strategy for teaching social skills. DR. Ivar Lovass created ABA in the 1980’s. Children typically receive anywhere from 10 to 40 hours of therapy a week. In reference to a study Lovaas conducted in 1987, the Lovaas center reports, “the outcomes indicated 47% of children (i.e., 9/19) became indistinguishable from their peers or “best outcome,” many were able to have their “autism” label removed.” Two pervasive ideas in ABA are those of “quiet hands” and “table ready.” “Quiet hands” refers to the tendency of Autistics to flap, flick, and in general move our hands as a mode of communication, emotional expression, or self-regulation. ABA believes that in order to be successful in a mainstream environment, this must be suppressed. “Table ready” essentially entails sitting still and looking like your non-autistic peers. These may seem like good goals, but they are foolhardy. Because autism is a neurotype, if you are born Autistic, you will be Autistic forever. And if a child is never able to be mainstreamed, that represents a “failure.” ABA’s own theory and methods undergird its uselessness. ABA is little more than compliance training, and “quiet hands” and “table ready” are euphemisms for “sit down and shut up”. Educators and therapists often express frustration that Autistic children don’t follow directions or respect boundaries. But if the child is not respected, if their “no” never means “no,” is it any wonder they don’t listen to yours?
Recognizing this, educators are beginning to take a different approach to dealing with Autistic students in their mainstream classrooms. Instead of attempting to fit the Autistic kid into a set system, some teachers are adapting the system to the kid. This is the same philosophy behind the Horse Boy Method. The book, Teaching Children with Autism in the General Classroom (2009), includes guidance on modifications to the physical classroom as well as teaching strategies. As discussed above, creating the right environment is critical to the success of Autistic students. Some suggestions provided in the book are: create “boundaries to segment different work areas in the classroom,” minimize visual clutter, reduce the use of fluorescent lights, and consider the child’s needs when assigning their seat (Spencer & Simpson, 2009). Other interventions mentioned were visual schedules, established routines, peer buddies, and simplified directions. One teacher in the “Case Study” section reported that the adaptations he had made—being “more structured and consistent with my class procedures, routines, and expectations”—had benefited all of his students and made his class run smoother (p.42-43). This last point may be the incentive teachers need to do the work up front of creating an environment conducive to learning for Autistic students, rather than rigidly expecting conformity from exceptional students.
Educational placement (mainstream vs. special education classroom) is a huge topic of debate. Research of efficacy of different placements has been largely inconclusive (Hocutt, 1996). One reason studies have failed to produce conclusive results is the diversity not only among exceptional students, but also in classroom implementation of strategies. Educating students with disabilities is too complex an issue to apply a one-size-fits-all model in which we assume that mainstream is always better than special education, or vice versa. Even with adaptations, some individuals will need more support than a mainstream classroom can provide. This is where special education programs come into play.
Special education is a broad term that groups together many different practices. Special education includes part-time attendance in a resource room, education in a self-contained special ed classroom, or in a separate school altogether (Hocutt, 1996). The benefits of special education include smaller class sizes and teachers and aides with more familiarity with a given disability and specialized training. Proponents of special education also cite higher self-esteem (among students with certain disabilities), peers at the same developmental level, and lower dropout rates. In her literature review, “Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor?” Amy Hocutt comes to two important conclusions in regards to this question. Firstly, she finds, “the interventions that were effective in improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities required a considerable investment of resources” (p. 97). This is likely unsurprising to most. Secondly, Hocutt concludes, “the research does not support inclusion for all students with disabilities” and successful interventions feature a “case-by-case approach to decision making” (p.97).
For all of the conflicting reports on best practices and difficulties in educating students with disabilities in a traditional education model, the current system also has strengths. One major strength is its accessibility. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, students are guaranteed education that meets their needs. Services like occupational therapy and speech and language services can be provided through public schools. A second advantage is the volume of research conducted on traditional methodologies. While data may be conflicting, researchers have set out to measure almost every variable of educational attainment.
While newer approaches to education lack decades worth of research to validate them, neuroscience is beginning to take an interest in them. Opponents of alternative model of education denounce them as “new age,” not empirically validated, and all a placebo. However, slowly research into how the brain learns is emerging to validate the anecdotal evidence. One area of interest is the link between vestibular pathways and learning. The vestibular system is a sensory system that provides information about the “angular and linear acceleration of the head in three dimensions” (Hitier et al, 2014). Research thus far has yielded conclusions that the vestibular system plays a part in cognition, especially in regards to spatial learning, spatial memory, and object recognition learning. It has even been hypothesized that numerical learning is affected. A 2007 literature review by Bellebaum implicates the cerebellum, best known for motor involvement, in higher order cognitive processes. Executive function, sometimes called cognitive control or mental control, is responsible for planning and organizing; starting, finishing, and switching tasks; and behavioral and mental inhibition. Although we don’t yet understand this link, Bellebaum concedes it is “widely accepted that the cerebellum contributes to cognitive processing” (2007). Finally, a study by Kirsch et al. looked for evidence of oxytocin involvement. Oxytocin is a “feel good” hormone and is often released during rhythmic rocking of the hips; that’s why people like walking, running, dancing, and having sex. Kirsch et al. found that oxytocin not only reduces amygdala activation thereby mitigating fear, but that it also affects social cognition (Kirsch et al., 2005). Findings like this confirm what Rupert and his team have seen in their clients: movement helps learning. Specifically the movement of a horse in rhythm, which closely mimics pelvic rocking in the human gait. While most of the research has yet to make links to neural processes and equine-assisted therapy, and there is still lots more research that needs to be done and replicated before theories like these will come into the mainstream, the foundational bricks have been layed.
Even if the science supports the Horse Boy Method, it is unlikely to become a staple in education of Autistics if only for the simple reason that we can’t put horses in every public school in the country. What is scalable, however, is the principles behind the Horse Boy Method. Some, like the authors of Teaching Children with Autism in the General Classroom, are already suggesting ways to create a more autism-friendly environment. By taking time to consider the sensory needs of each student, teachers provide more opportunities for success. Learning to recognize, process, and regulate emotions is something all children need to learn. Encouraging rather than suppressing stimming allows children to build proficiency in self-regulation. Another core idea of the Horse Boy Method is that of letting students explore and direct their own education. Students learn from teachers, but teachers can—and should—also learn from students. The Horse Boy Method is invaluable for the children and families that are able to work with Horse Boy practitioners around the country. For the rest of us, Horse Boy challenges us to think differently about the education of exceptional students. And this is something that will benefit ALL students.
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