Westchester Middle School seventh-grade students in Hannah Ewing’s classes learned more about autism through corresponding units on Rules, a novel about Catherine, a 12-year-old girl who created rules to help her younger brother with autism navigate life, and a writing unit about Stanford’s partnership with Google to develop an interface within Google Glass that helps children with autism better understand facial expressions.
Ms. Ewing shared that she likes introducing the book Rules to her students in the first half of the school year to emphasize diversity and empathy for others. She began the unit by discussing the autism spectrum, including informational videos and focusing on the importance of person-first language, such as referring to a child with autism instead of an autistic child.
The book centers on Catherine’s internal struggle of wanting to protect and care for her brother while also seeking to establish her own identity. Comprehending the story’s themes requires deep inferencing, which gives students the unique opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. “Students realize that you never know what someone is going through and how it may impact them elsewhere in their life,” Ms. Ewing explained.
“Students realize that you never know what someone is going through and how it may impact them elsewhere in their life.”
Many students tied the main characters and their experiences to those they know personally who are on the autism spectrum. “By having the book focus the conversation, it gave students a safe space to ask questions that they otherwise might not feel comfortable addressing. It’s important to have these conversations within a context that doesn’t shame students for having questions around diversity issues.”
In early March, Ms. Ewing’s students participated in a corresponding unit on Stanford’s pilot program with Google, Autism Glass Project, which transforms Google Glass into a device to help children with autism identify and interpret facial expressions. Pairing the previous fiction unit with a scientific article about the ongoing study to give those with autism social resources that help them adapt and interact with others exposes students to solutions related to the book.
Ms. Ewing said, “Students really enjoyed how the article shifted their perspectives, helping them understand what they may take for granted in their own lives, such as awareness of others’ nonverbal cues." When teaching the article, Ms. Ewing activated students’ prior knowledge from the Rules unit about the challenges that many people with autism face. The article was presented to students as a problem-solution text, a text structure that students typically find more complex.
Reading both fiction and nonfiction texts related to neurodiversity is an exercise that students find both valuable and relatable, and these complementary units never fail to engage them, leading to insightful discussions in the classroom.