Debunking autism myths

School for autistic savants, should these exist?

Firstly, let us explore the word autistic savant and what it means.

A savant is typically classified as an individual possessing extraordinary abilities, far surpassing the average. Autistic savants carry with them the diagnosis of autism, which means that they will most likely demonstrate poor social skills. Areas that autistic savants tend to excel in vary greatly from individual to individual, but common forms include mathematical skills, heightened memory ability, artistic skills and musical abilities.

Should there be a school for autistic savants?

As covered above, the abilities that these children excel in will differ greatly and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach will do a disservice to the specific needs of each child. One child may be far beyond the average in their maths class, able to use logical thinking and patterning and therefore will not require any guidance, however the same child may struggle to understand abstract concepts covered in their English class and will need more focused attention during this time. Another child in the same class may have a greater understanding than most children in all subjects but cannot sustain attention or refuses to participate in group work and will need a different approach and intervention to the first child.

School for autistic savants: It would be more beneficial to have a look at traditional schooling and how teachers can work together with the child in order to ensure success across all settings. Below are a few areas to look at with regards to this.

Teachers should have an understanding of the child’s strengths and use these to work in their favour. When there are areas of weakness, use their pre-existing strengths to boost confidence and make them feel successful. If the child is proficient with computers but has poor fine motor skills, consider allowing them to type their work on a compute or iPad instead of them losing interest in work that involves pen and paper. Have a look at which subjects they do best in and why that could be the case. Do they learn best through auditory, visual or tactile stimuli and how can you use that to adapt your teaching so that they are more likely to understand, follow or sustain attention to what you are teaching them.

In addition, it is important that the teacher build a good rapport with the child from the beginning of the school year and figure out the best way to communicate with them. Social skills, such as building and maintaining relationships as well as social communication, can be difficult with children diagnosed with autism. Savants typically have good language abilities and it becomes a challenge for those who do not understand why someone who is fully able to communicate, often will not do so in a manner that is socially expected of them. When the teacher understands this and is able to find a way to communicate with the child and encourage them to do so with others in the school environment, the child will have more success in the classroom and misunderstandings will be kept to a minimum.

Many autistic savants are not able to sustain attention to their work for long periods of time (often for different reasons such as boredom, poor attention skills, poor inhibition skills and a host of other possibilities) and can show extreme resistance to working through textbooks or listening to teachers presenting in the front of the class due to the fact that most academic work comes naturally to them and so they may become frustrated having to follow at the pace of the rest of the class. Teachers working with savants will need to be accommodating, accepting and open-minded. They should also be able to keep the child interested in the work they are covering and know when to give the child extra work that goes beyond the scope of what the rest of the class are doing.

Teachers will become a large determining factor to whether or not an autistic savant will be successful in the traditional school environment as they are the mediators between the work content as well as other social interacts the child may need to be involved in, both in and outside of the classroom setting. It may be helpful for the parents and teachers to consult professionals who are specialised in working with children who have autism to help guide their approach towards the child, as each child is different and may require a unique classroom intervention.

In closing, a school for autistic savants may not be the most effective option to consider, but rather talking to the teacher or team that will be working with the child will go a long way in setting them up for a successful, productive and efficient school experience.