Cluey’s approach to teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Cluey’s Chief Learning Officer, Dr Selina Samuels, defines ASD in the context of learning and discusses how Cluey’s approach may be highly effective for these students.

autism aspergers asd tutoring support
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition where children experience impairments in social communication and social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours and interests. These symptoms are often accompanied by sensory issues, such as an oversensitivity or under-sensitivity to sounds.

The term “spectrum” in Autism Spectrum Disorder emphasises that autism presents differently in all individuals. Different children diagnosed with ASD will have different symptoms. Children with Level 1 autism (sometimes referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome) require less support and may find it relatively easy to manage in the mainstream classroom. Children with level 2 or 3 autism will require greater support. There is also research suggesting that autism may manifest differently in boys as opposed to girls.

Some of the characteristics of children with autism are:

  • Difficulty connecting with other people (especially unfamiliar individuals)
  • Failure to respond when their name is called or they are spoken to directly
  • Poor eye contact or looking at people from the corner of their eyes
  •  Unusual use of gestures (e.g. pointing, waving, nodding or shaking their head)
  • Abnormal or inappropriate volume, pitch or intonation in speech
  • Lack of “theory of mind”: inability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions  and perspectives that are different from one’s own
  • Lack of awareness of socially inappropriate behaviours
  • Difficulty or lack of interest in establishing peer relationships
  • Delay in the development of spoken language
  • Difficulty in initiating or sustaining a conversation with others
  •  Repetitive motor or verbal actions (also known as “stimming”)
  • Putting hands over their ears
  • Limited or extreme level of interests
  • Tendency to be preoccupied with numbers, letters and symbols
  • Referring to themselves in the third person – using their name rather than “I”
  • Difficulty with transitions – student might get frustrated when transitioning to a new topic or content area
  • Overreaction to apparently trivial changes.

At Cluey, we have built our pedagogy and programs to promote learning routines which are positive for all students, and especially those with ASD. For example, our Maths programs are organised in a consistent three-part structure – theory, worked example, practice – on the basis that students first need to understand a concept, then be shown how to apply it, and then practice independently. This is the best way to embed learning, and its regularity can be particularly comforting for ASD students who prefer routine. Our one-to-one format allows tutors to build on each student’s strengths and interests, adapting the content for maximum engagement, and providing personalised step-by-step guidance. At Cluey, the student sets the pace of the session and the tutor can move as quickly or slowly as needed through the program, without having to accommodate the needs and interests of a neurotypical classroom cohort.

While online learning is not going to suit all students and may prove challenging for students with Level 3 ASD, the online environment has a number of key benefits for our autistic students.

  1. In the Cluey environment, the integration of audio and video with an interactive whiteboard and the learning program and content means that the direct interaction with the tutor is minimised, making it less intense and therefore less confronting than in-person tutoring.
  2. The live learning session is a tightly controlled and controllable sensory environment. Students can turn off their cameras, or even use the chat function in the platform rather than their microphone if they are reluctant to speak, while still interacting effectively with their tutor. Similarly, the tutor can cover their camera if the student would prefer not to see a face during the session.
  3. Students can learn from within a familiar physical environment – their own home – and do not have to adjust to a new space. We encourage them to use headphones and work in quiet areas of their home where they feel most comfortable.
  4. Parents can participate as and when needed or desired by the student and can also provide valuable information about the learning needs of their child to the tutor. It’s just a matter of sitting next to their child during a session and having a chat with the tutor.
  5. The Cluey live learning environment is very focused and personalised, with the tutor working at the pace that best suits the student’s needs. The format of the learning program is transparent and highly structured in order to build good learning habits. Repetition and consolidation are encouraged. Students can ask as many questions as they like without interrupting other learners.
  6. Because the space in which the students and tutors work is an interactive whiteboard, it is highly visual. Verbal instructions are accompanied by visual references and clear written instructions and templates. The focus is on clarity and consolidation.
  7. The online environment, even with audio and video, requires all of us to be direct and intentional. We must rely less on subtle visual cues that an ASD student might find difficult to decipher and therefore misleading or confusing. Hence, they often find learning online even more accessible than their neurotypical colleagues.

With 915+ tutors, we are able to find the right match for each student. Many of our tutors have extensive experience teaching neurodiverse students. Joanne Netting, one of Cluey’s lead tutors in English and a highly experienced educator, said of teaching ASD students,

“Classroom noise, distractions and disruptions can create sensory overload and overwhelm some ASD students, which has a negative impact on their ability to focus. Student numbers and time have often limited the individual attention or customised learning approaches and resources I would wish to offer my ASD students in the classroom. In contrast, tutoring ASD students online with Cluey Learning has been a very positive and rewarding experience for my ASD students and for me. The online platform allows me to provide individualised, student-centric and actively engaging learning experiences with plenty of positive reinforcement. I can minimise distractions and we can also schedule sessions to cater for student needs for routine and consistency. As a result, my students feel less anxious and are better able to pay attention and maintain focus on tasks.”

It is important to remember that each student – neurodiverse or neurotypical – is unique. Samantha Adnett, a Mathematics lead tutor with experience in the classroom as well as online, points to the value of playing to each student’s strengths and engaging with their interests as great ways to build rapport and student confidence. She told me about one of her students with ASD who brings a problem he has come across or a topic of interest to their sessions, “And we will focus on the mathematical concepts involved to help him understand it. For example, he was interested in a game of chance he heard on the radio and so we looked at probability that day. He has also asked me about how an early pit stop can lead to a winner in Formula 1 racing. This led us to explore the relationship between speed, distance and time as well as practice converting units, all while keeping it interesting to him.”

At Cluey, the tutor is the student’s learning partner. Because our one-to-one approach to learning creates a supportive rather than a competitive learning environment, students are free to learn in the ways that suit them best. We see again and again how this personalisation and flexibility builds students’ confidence. As Joanne says, “I have been able to celebrate students’ abilities and talents as well as address special needs.  In my personal experience as a Cluey tutor, I have found that encouraging students to discover their ASD ‘superpowers’ has greatly improved their self-esteem, confidence, motivation and learning outcomes.”

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