Teaching Kids With Autism: My Interview With Autism Consultant Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell by Mike Prochaska
Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell began as a teacher, moved into special education, was a counselor, school psychologist and school consultant. After retiring from a consultant for a school district, Dr. Mitchell now works for a health region as an autism consultant. “I work with kids from about age 2 to early adulthood and their parents," she says. Read on to learn more about Dr. Mitchell…
Q. Do you teach children with autism differently?
“Some not so differently, but many do. Autism is a social communication disorder so those social nuances and skills that most kids pick up automatically have to be taught to autistic kids. Much of natural learning takes place in group situations and often kids with autism shy away from others and prefer solitary activities.
“The sensory sensitivities also interfere with typical learning. Many on the autism spectrum are over sensitive to sounds, smells, touch, etc., so are often in a heightened state of arousal, on the verge of a flight, fight or freeze response. It's hard to learn when you are constantly anxious or on guard."
Q. Is that due to sensory processing disorder ?
“Sensory processing disorder is not part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, but most people on the autism spectrum have some degree of sensory processing difficulties and sensory sensitivities."
Q. What would you tell someone thinking about entering the autism field?
“If so, read to see if different ways of thinking appeal to you. An easy read book to start with is ‘Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome.’ It was written by Luke Jackson when he was 14. I like its positive take.
“And, my book, ‘Autism Goes to School,’ was meant as an intro to autism, the way an autistic child might see the world and strategies that will work at home and at school. I'm not a fan of telling educators that they must do this, this and this for a child who has autism; that gets overwhelming for the teacher when there are so many needs. Instead, I like to focus on strategies that are doable in a busy room and will help a number of different types of children."
Q. Why is play important to children?
“Play is the way children explore their world and learn. I'm not in favor of autism therapies that require a child to sit at table for hours (some up to 40 hours a week).
“Regio Emelio started a movement back to natural world play, including bringing the outdoors in for young children's play, using natural materials. Apart from the benefits of being in the sunshine and fresh air, outside play allows kids the space for the movements their bodies require. And, outside play often involves less adult structure and involvement, freeing kids to make their own rules and hone their social skills.”
Q. How do you feel about full-body play or roughhousing?
“Full-body play is needed to learn where your body is in space and how to control it. Most kids enjoy the physicality. The exception would be kids who have been abused, and those with vestibular, tactile or proprioception weaknesses."
Q. What would you tell someone thinking of going into this field?
“Helping to give young children a good start in life is one of the most worthwhile things you can do. Early childhood educators build the foundation for learning, including self-confidence and social skills. I like to follow the lead of kids in play, engage with them then help to expand on their interests and skills. I'm passionate about working with kids who have autism and kids who learn differently.”
Learn more at DrSharonMitchell.org.
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