Sunday, April 20, 2008

Autism and Special Needs Children in the Montessori Classroom

autism special needs NAMC montessori classroom sucess boy pink tower
April is Autism Awareness Month, and Autism is on the rise at an alarming rate in the United States. It is estimated that there are approximately 259,425 children (ages 3-22) who have been diagnosed with autism. (http://www.fightingautism.org/)

Autism is a developmental disability that is typically diagnosed during the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that impairs the functioning of the brain which impacts development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children with autism have difficulty relating to and communicating with others and they have difficulty understanding the body language and emotional expression of others.

While the causes of autism are still not known, research indicates there may be genetic factors as well as factors based on conditions affecting brain development before, during, and shortly after birth. There are still on-going discussions as to whether autism can develop later and whether allergies or dietary intolerances play a role in its development. The Montessori classroom is an environment which can help children with autism and other special needs explore and learn experience success in education.

Information on How Autism and Special Needs Children Can Experience Success in the Montessori Classroom


Children with autism are not physically disabled. As such, it may be difficult to understand and children are often thought of or labeled as naughty or difficult. Even more alarming is the fact that there is no proven cure or no standard treatment for autism. In her article "The Autistic Spectrum: Autism, Asperger syndrome "AS) and Semantic Pragmatic Disorder (SPD) – a practical Montessori response, Wendy Fidler states that children diagnosed with autism experience, to some degree, impairment in the following three areas:
  • Communication- "language impairment across all modes of communication - speech, intonation, gesture, facial expression and other body language"
  • Socialization – "difficulties with social relationships, poor social timing, lack of social empathy, rejection of normal body contact, inappropriate eye contact"
  • Imagination – "rigidity and inflexibility of thought processes, resistance to change, obsessional and ritualistic behavior, lack of creative, imaginative play"

In addition, there are some traits that children (and adults) with autism exhibit:
  • Insistence on sameness (resistance to change)
  • Difficulty in expressing needs and relying on gestures instead of words
  • Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (bright lights, loud sounds, unexpected touch, taste, smell)
  • Echolalia (echoing or repeating words spoken to them)
  • Laughing/crying/showing distress for no apparent reason
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spinning objects or self
  • Over- or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fear of danger
  • Uneven gross/motor skills
  • Noticeable physical under- or over-activity
  • Unresponsive to verbal cues

Autism in the Montessori Environment

Research shows that early intervention (from birth to age 3) dramatically impacts and reduces the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. These "Absorbent" minds are the most flexible and open to change. The prepared environment and the predictable daily routines of the Montessori classroom offer stability for children with special needs. The Montessori materials provide hands-on learning and continuous stimulations which promotes multi-sensory engagement from all students.

Special care should be taken to create an environment that is friendly to those with sensory hypersensitivity. Some considerations may be:
  • Soften bright lights or remove fluorescent lighting (fluorescent lights flash many times per second which can be overwhelming to a child with autism)
  • Sudden loud noises are frightening to a child with autism
  • Take care when selecting and presenting fabrics, metals, or woods.
  • Have a variety of eye masks or silk scarves to use as blindfold for 'tactile' or stereognostic activities
  • The sound boxes and Montessori bells can also be upsetting. Take care when presenting these to children with autism.
  • Carefully respond to all "accidents" as children with autism have a very high pain threshold.
  • The Montessori classroom should be secure so children cannot wander into unsafe areas.
  • Children with autism do not like change. Precautions should be taken when organizing field trips or other activities which stray from the predictable daily routine. Discuss the changes with the children well in advance so they are not taken by surprise.

autism special needs NAMC montessori classroom success child interrupting
Children with autism benefit from watching others around them. Montessori lessons on grace and courtesy allow children the opportunity to learn and practice appropriate social interactions. They learn conversational skills, how to make eye contact, facial expressions, and body language. They will also watch other children use materials before they themselves choose to participate.

Because the Montessori curriculum is by its nature, inclusive, the child with autism should feel safe and secure in the Montessori environment. It is the perfect place to learn and grown at his own pace.

For more information on Montessori and Autism, please visit the Montessori Autism Services website.

As listed in NAMC’s Montessori 3-6 Classroom Guide, further resources on Autism:

As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community. © the North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Sunday, April 20, 2008.

14 comments:

  1. I am a special education teacher and am also Montessori trained (AMS CMTE/NC & NY. I have a Montessori environment and use the Montessori method in my class for children with autism. It's a perfect match. I have Michelle Lane's Montessori tracking manual/curriculm guide. Currently I'm researching using Montessori with children with autism. Is there anyone else "out there"? I'd love to hear from you. jrcourson@gmail.com
    Janet Courson

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am concerned that many parents often expect Montessori to accomodate a child with autism. I have been an assistant in a Montessori classroom for two years and have seen about 8 children with autism in the communities. While some of these children were highly functional, most were not. They screamed and had outbursts and it was very hard sometimes to help the other children understand why this happened and they often distracted the rest of the community by having these outbursts. Some parents have also downplayed their child's disorder in order to get accepted into the school. Working with a child with autism did teach me many things, such as implementing new strategies, but it also taught me that the Montessori environment should not be expected to deal with profound autism in children because Montessori guides and assistants are not specifically trained on how to direct children with this disorder. I have seen so many desperate parents who hold on to Montessori as a last hope for their children, which can be somewhat unfair for Montessori schools, guides, and assistants.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. We certainly appreciate the challenges for families of children with special needs, and applaud the many families and schools that collaborate toward a quality of life for their children and community. Of course, each circumstance is unique and requires careful and caring effort to determine the best educational environment for the child.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I too am a Montessori trained teacher and hav efor the last several years working with indiiduals with autism....I am anticipating getting my Masters in special ed and then integrating the two Montessori and special ed, with regards to Autism and other special needs. I walk into Montessori schools all the time and spot ids on the spectrum and no on e has addressed it. Very sad. Janet I will inbox you maybe we can sollaborate I would love to set up training for Montessori teachers to have a better understaning of autism and special needs. Anyone know of a traing program out there? I also have thrty years of experence in home schooling, I used soem of the method while engaging in homeschool as well if anyone needs any help or consultations.
    Well Love and Light my fellow travelors on this great journy. ;-)
    Linda Krouse
    holistictheraies2010@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for your insight, Linda.

    Much appreciated!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Here is a blog and dialogue that we thought our interested readers may find useful:
    http://www.mymontessorihouse.com/2008/03/autism-and-aspergers-great-video-and.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. Our school, Montessori of Alameda, is hosting a weekend with Dr. Joyce Pickering regarding special needs children in the Montessori environment. The workshop in Portland, OR is open to the public and if you would like more information, please email admin@montessoriofalameda.com.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I am a parent of a child with autism who has been thriving in Montessori environment. I believe that Montessori holds the key to educating these children to their potential, with the promise of a meaningful, productive, and well-adjusted life. However, I completely agree that students with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) should attain a certain level of functionality (like regain pivotal skills) before being admitted, and should not be disruptive in the classroom. For practical accommodations of ASD students in a Montessori classrooms, and for ways to combine Montessori philosophy with autism therapies, please see: http://www.montessori4autism.org

    ReplyDelete
  9. To respond to your comments about Montessori training for inclusion - it is out there!

    1) Shelton School's "Montessori Applied to the Child At-Risk" (MACAR) with Joyce Pickering (she also offers this at AMS conferences occasionally)
    http://www.shelton.org/page.cfm?p=438

    2) New training through AMI - Montessori Intervention Program (MIP)
    http://www.montessoriintervention.org/special-course.php

    3) another new training (AMS/AMI)
    http://jola-montessori.com/article/montessoris-new-frontier-special-education/

    If you wish to see full inclusion in practice, go check out a public Montessori school. Because they are public (whether charter, magnet, or district) these schools are required to include all children. Some do inclusion very well, others struggle.

    Seek training and professional development as a teacher to learn strategies to better include students with disabilities!
    -Natalie

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am Montessori trained (CMTE/ NY) and currently a school social worker. I am writing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. The title of my dissertation is"EVIDENCE BASED PROGRAMS FOR THE TREATMENT
    OF ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND THE MONTESSORI EDUCATIONAL METHOD: AN INTEGRATIVE REVIEW." I am looking for anecdotal information on what Montessori teachers have heard from parents about why they have chosen a Montessori school for their child with Asperger's Syndrome. Please inbox me if you have information that I could use.
    Thanks!
    jenfultn@netscape.net

    ReplyDelete
  11. I currently work in a montessori class of 20 children with one teacher and one assistant. A child has started the class and has presented with non verbal makes occssional noises has no eye contact no concentration and walk around aimlessly on tip toe all session .montessori is so structured I wonder is it s huge injustice to the child to be bin this environment as staff lack experience and stimulating equipment to facilitate the child any thoughts ?? Whst is the rights of s child in this situation thanks

    ReplyDelete
  12. If we truly believe that all children can and have the right to learn, then there is a place for this child in your Montessori environment. It is true that it will require additional time, attention, skill, effort, and patience to fully integrate the child into the rest of the environment. You have an excellent ration of teachers to children. Begin with the most basic Practical Life lessons – how to roll a rug; how to walk around a rug; how to carry a chair; how to open and close a door softly. These basic lessons will not only center the child’s focus, but it will also prepare him for the behaviors expected in the classroom.

    In the near future, there will be a series of three blogs which address executive function. Additionally, there are several good resources mentioned in the comments above which may give you additional insight.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My daughter who is 3 years now has been diagnosed with autism.
    We have an autism school which recently opened in our town.She has spent one month at the same school.
    I will try to ask teachers of the school about this program MONTESSORI AUTISM.
    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I just completed my dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. It is entitled "Evidence Based Social Skills Interventions for Young Children with Asperger’s Syndrome and the Montessori Educational Method: An Integrative Review." I am hoping to have it published in the next month. The findings suggest that, depending on the student, a Montessori classroom environment may be appropriate.

    ReplyDelete

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As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.

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