Capitalizing on the strengths of people with autism

Photographs of Barcelona by Mira ShahLast week I blogged about my trip to China. This week, it’s Spain! I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation with my colleague Dr. Lori Geist at the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication Conference last month. The conference meets every two years, and this year it happened to be in Barcelona.

Our presentation was about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Autism. The presentation was well attended, and the topic proved to be fodder for some great discussion with some of the thought leaders in the field of autism.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is one of my go-to sources regarding UDL. The three principles of UDL are described on the CAST web site like this:

  • Multiple means of representation, to give diverse learners options for acquiring information and knowledge,
  • Multiple means of action and expression, to provide learners options for demonstrating what they know,
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

These principles can be applied to learners with autism to ensure that they have the optimum instruction and the best outcomes.

In our presentation, Dr. Geist and I discussed a bit of the brain science as it relates to UDL and then moved on to how the UDL teaching philosophy can capitalize on the strengths of people with autism.

One example: the multiple means of expression. Many learners with autism would prefer watching a YouTube video to learn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich over having someone give them the directions verbally. Tapping into a special interest of a person with autism is another great way to increase engagement. One student had a huge interest in labels on cans. Yuuki was a lot more interested in learning how to read if the writing was on the label of a can than if it was on a workbook!

Some people say UDL is just good teaching, and they are right. But UDL certainly gives me a framework of how to think about ensuring that learning is accessible to everyone in the classroom — including those with autism.

And did I mention that I got to talk about UDL in BARCELONA? This just made the topic all that more enjoyable! To help you get a true “flavor” of the city, I’ve included a couple of pictures that my friend and colleague Mira Shah took. She presented at the conference as well — but in addition to being a highly-skilled speech pathologist, she is also a very talented photographer.


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