Eleanor Bates Moody, a student at Westminster School in Alabama, selected the topic of “Classical Christian Education & Autism” for her senior thesis. Her questions were so thoughtfully and carefully prepared that we decided to share the interview she conducted with Cheryl.
EBM: Why is classical Christian education a great option for the average child?
CS: More than a mere “option,” classical Christian education is a true education. With a formative inclination to that which is True, Good, and Beautiful, with timeless and effective pedagogy, and with the preeminence of the eternal, saving gospel of Jesus Christ, this is the educational heritage for all human beings.
EBM: What are your opinions on classical Christian education for children on the autism spectrum?
CS: Children on the autism spectrum vary widely, but all are human beings in need of an excellent, inspiring Christian education. Memoria Press and Simply Classical offer materials that allow for adaptations to welcome the average child, the child with learning challenges, the gifted child, and any child in between.
EBM: What aspects of classical Christian schools are intrinsically well-suited to children with autism?
CS: These things are often already in place: smaller class sizes, good order, artistically decorated and uncluttered rooms, clear teacher-led instruction, oral recitations, consistent expectations, exemplary models of conduct by faculty, great depth of learning, and memorization and recitation practice.
EBM: What would a classical Christian school need in regards to time and space, etc., to more fully include children with autism in the learning environment?
CS: This will depend on the severity of the autism. Children with the mildest manifestations of autism may be integrated without additional costs, if teachers and headmasters are willing to make reasonable adaptations. Children with mild to moderate autism may require an aide, a quiet area set aside for reading or working, different lighting, reduced classroom noise, more intentional routines, visual schedules posted and reviewed, and greater communication with parents to ensure that all is working well. Children with moderate to severe autism may require aides, additional part-time or full-time teachers, therapies, an alternate classroom for one or more hours per day, and an alternate curriculum, such as the Simply Classical Curriculum, designed specifically for careful pacing, multi-modal instruction, and the content adapted for such students.
EBM: What is the difference between accommodations and modifications?
CS: Overall, special education as a field has too much jargon. Rest assured that even without such jargon, if the teachers wish to invite students with special needs to the school, key ingredients for success already exist within the faculty: warmth, compassion, and common sense. Anyone with a researching mind can learn more about particular diagnoses or conditions to determine practical ways to help and teach such a child. In the field of special education both “accommodation” and “modification” denote adaptation, but accommodations are adjustments made while requiring the same content to be learned; modifications adjust the content itself. Sometimes a student needs both. Here are some examples: When a student needs accommodations, he is expected to participate in class and otherwise engage with the same books his peers read, but he may need:
● an audiobook to follow along at home if he cannot yet read the work independently himself, as for dyslexia.
● to type papers or present orally, as for dysgraphia.
● to sit nearer the board, nearer a well behaved student, or nearer the teacher, as for attention difficulties.
● extra time on tests or a quiet setting for tests, as for processing disabilities.
● an aide to help him organize materials, follow directions, navigate social cues, or remain on task as he studies the material his classmates study, as for autism. With modifications, the content is adjusted to allow the student to remain in the class or school when he is not learning at the same pace of study as his peers, as in:
● an alternate level of literature, math, or Latin.
● a modified classical education to such an extent that this is then reflected on report cards (possibly short term) or diplomas (long term).
● a side-by-side classical Christian education, such as a Simply Classical school-within-a-school or class-within-a-class, for one or more academic areas to allow the student to learn at the pace he needs to master material and thrive.
EBM: Should classical Christian schools offer accommodations and modifications? Why or why not?
CS: All classical Christian schools offer accommodations and modifications to some degree. We must not be quick to relegate children with autism to secular institutions or deem a classical Christian education worthy only for the most capable among us. School leadership needs to determine to what extent they are interested in integrating students with significant learning challenges. Discussions might give birth to written policies or the decision to determine adaptations on a case-by-case basis. While allowing for the understanding that “rigor” can be seen mercifully as “rigorous for that child,” any adaptations should remain consistent with the mission of the school, with classical pedagogy, and with the Christian faith.
EBM: Will there be negative side effects from adding students that need accommodations or modifications to a classroom?
CS: It should not be assumed that welcoming a student with autism will bring negative side effects. As with any child, a careful application and interview process can help to uncover any history of behavioral disturbances,
set clear expectations, and foster discussion of the child’s needs before enrollment. When included adeptly, a child with autism may well enhance the experience of his classmates and teachers, including by embodying the understanding that all persons are created in the image of God, all fall short, and all are redeemed in Christ.
EBM: What are your top three favorite strategies for both engaging with and educating children on the autism spectrum?
1) A Gentle But Predictable Routine: Create, post, and review a clear, visual routine for each day and week. Announce changes to the routine ahead of time in a calm, reassuring manner. Assist the student in transitioning from one lesson or activity to another with joy and ease.
2) A Compassionate Understanding of Sensory Differences: Integrate simple movements, chanting, or jumping into your recitations and academic games. Purposeful movement such as brief stretching or a nature walk may help the student “reset” for the next lesson. Reduce the classroom’s overall sensory load by inserting periods of quiet. Add a period of silent reading each day, expect minimal talking during transition periods, allow headphones or a designated study carrel as an “office” for independent work, soften overhead lighting, reduce loud noises (muffle a bell or buzzer), and keep the room tidy.
3) An Appreciation for the Unique Interests & Strengths of a Child with Autism: Include the child’s interests when possible. If he loves weather patterns, you might assign a report on weather in other lands when the class studies geography. If he is exceptionally fond of the history of England, allow him to write a brief report on the period of history when you study Dickens, Austen, or Shakespeare. Give clear boundaries (e.g., “a single-page report, double-spaced”), lest the intensity of the interest derail the intended studies.
EBM: Does there come a point where classical Christian education is no longer effective for children on the autism spectrum? In other words, does the curriculum ever become so rigorous that students can no longer keep up without extreme modifications?
CS: If the intent is to “keep up with the class,” then this might close doors, but it is important that a child with autism or any other learning challenges be allowed to deepen his education—rather than abandon it—if he reaches what appear to be his upper limits. A classical Christian school might offer an alternate upper school curriculum for those who need modifications in the content. For example, at the upper levels our Simply Classical packages offer two-year editions of all studies. The two year plans allow students to continue at a slower, steadier pace with greater review and instruction commensurate with their abilities.
EBM: Is there a dramatic difference between classical Christian education in a homeschool setting and in a typical classroom setting for a student with autism? Which one is more effective?
CS: In the classical Christian homeschool, a child with autism might receive accommodations and modifications with greater flexibility than in a classroom. If he is unusually skilled in math or science, for example, he
may be allowed to progress to far greater heights in the homeschool than if taught alongside classmates. For weaker areas, such as making literary inferences or organizing his time, he can receive step-by-step
instruction in the homeschool. Discussions of literature, listening to sacred music, or practicing recitations might continue while traveling to and from appointments or therapies. Lasting friendships can be cultivated through extracurricular activities, without the daily pressures of academics or a classroom. Flexibility is perhaps the greatest benefit to homeschooling for a child with autism.
In the classical Christian classroom, however, a child with autism may receive the accountability he needs to stay the course, to redirect wandering thoughts, to conform to high standards, and to be respectful and self-regulated while learning to adapt to different personalities and the rules of multiple teachers. In a welcoming classical Christian school, the student with autism has numerous opportunities to enjoy companionship with Christian students and teachers. With sensitivity to the student’s vulnerabilities and with respect for his stronger qualities, a student with autism can thrive in the classical Christian school.
There need not be a drastic difference between homeschool and classroom implementations, nor do these settings need to be mutually exclusive. With the variations now available, some private schools offer a la carte in-person classes, half-day enrollment, or cottage schools that meet once weekly. Some classical Christian schools extend invitations to homeschoolers to join for daily Matins, choir, theater productions, or other areas that might be more difficult to replicate at home. Similarly, a homeschooled student with autism can now find teachers and classmates through Memoria Academy’s unique Simply Classical courses. All serve a common cause. Such partnerships can be gratifying and beneficial to all involved.