Monday, January 30, 2012

A NAMC Student’s Experience as a Montessori Parent: Autism

Part 4 of 4 – Montessori For My Autistic Sons
boy working on montessori practical life activity folding autism autistic children montessori worksThe following four-part series includes excerpts from an introductory letter written by a NAMC Lower Elementary diploma program student, Rachel, to her NAMC tutor. A mother of six boys, she was first introduced to Montessori in seeking alternative method of education for her first son. Her first four sons attended public school since kindergarten, with the oldest three beginning their education in Montessori preschool. Rachel’s two youngest boys, aged nine and ten, are autistic and she has chosen to complete her NAMC 6-9 diploma so that she may work with her sons using the Montessori method.


Why do I think the Montessori method will work for my children with Autism?

Before Maria Montessori opened her first Children’s House she worked with children in an “asylum.” This is where she developed her method. Building on equipment and theory available at the time she experimented with new methods of teaching “mentally deficient” children. Her equipment was originally designed to teach children who could not learn in a regular classroom. Several eight-year-old boys who were considered “deficient” passed standardized testing after learning through Montessori’s method of education.

Maria Montessori wondered what would happen if this same method were used with “normal” children. Since her “deficient” students were considered behind in development, she chose to present her method to preschool-aged children. After some practical modifications to the method (i.e. reducing some of the steps involved with the learning material), the children did extremely well and Montessori casa de bambini centers were started in many areas.

Maria Montessori has already created an effective way to teach both “normal” children and children with special needs. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?

After learning about Autism and pondering on the Montessori method I believe, though I do not have proof, that many of the children Montessori worked with had Autism. Why do I think this? First, because the type of children put in asylums in the early 1900’s were children with Autism, Down Syndrome and other disabilities that no one knew how to handle at that time. Second, because the method itself speaks volumes to me.

Children with Autism almost always have sensory issues. They can be sensory avoiders or sensory seekers. This is addressed in the sensorial portion of the classroom. Equipment in the sensorial section is designed to educate the senses. Much of this equipment can help desensitize autistic children to their special sensory difficulties, or provide much needed input for those who seek it.
  • Children with Autism have difficulty with self-help skills. The practical life sections of a Montessori classroom help by giving the child many opportunities to practice self-help skills.
  • Children with Autism have difficulty with abstract thought. Montessori teaches from the concrete to the abstract. The mathematical equipment shows the step by step process of moving from the concrete manipulatives to the abstract of numbers.
  • Children with Autism have difficulty with learning a whole concept all at once. Montessori takes larger concepts and breaks them down into their step by step processes, a common way to teach children with Autism.
  • Children with Autism often have difficulty in categorizing information they receive in and organized manner. Retrieving connected information or even connecting information that belongs together is difficult. The Montessori method teaches things from the whole to the part to the whole again. It teaches how and why things are connected and related.
  • Children with Autism often have trouble building vocabulary. Montessori equipment is designed to increase vocabulary. One little girl started at the Montessori school in which I volunteered at five years old. She could not speak. After working with the sound buckets (cylinders with a letter on the outside and objects that start with that sound on the inside) her vocabulary increased dramatically.
  • Families have difficulty exposing children with Autism to many varied environments. (This comes from experience. It was a nightmare to take my child anywhere.) Montessori curriculum is about different places, people, and environments. Montessori classrooms have animals of different species (bird, reptile, mammal, fish etc.). They have and study different environments (garden, indoor, outdoor, terrariums, etc.)
  • Children with Autism need to repeat things over and over. Montessori curriculum allows for repeating activities. A wise and observant directress will slowly add steps to the repetitive behavior, increasing the difficulty of the task until the equipment is being used to its fullest educational potential. Then, when all that can be learned has been mastered at this stage, the directress will redirect to a new task expanding the child’s world.
  • Children with Autism have difficulty with social skills. Montessori curriculum includes introducing people, being introduced, how to ask someone to do their work, and other social skills. As the children get older they are put into groups that work together. This builds social skills. My hope would be that “normal” children as well as disabled children would be in class together.
  • Children with Autism often have splinter skills. In some aspects of their behavior and knowledge they can be far ahead of their peers, whereas in other areas they may be far behind classmates. The Montessori method automatically individualizes the education to the specific needs of each child.
Why Montessori? Because the Montessori method was originally scientifically designed to educate special needs children. Some modifications would be required. The Toronto School for Autism uses ABA’s backward chaining model and discrete trial. I believe this probably puts back the steps that were taken out when the method was revised for “normal” children. Because the method is so individualized, mainstreaming would be much easier in a Montessori school than in public schools. Using picture communication and scheduling would also be helpful. Using the TEACCH method for those who need that kind of structure can be easily included. Using Dr. Greenspan’s Floortime model to get into the child’s world and bring him into ours would also be possible.

I realize that much of the above is talking about the preschool program, but I think some of the preschool curriculum can be included in an elementary classroom and I can find much of what I need for practical life and sensorial lessons online. If I do well with the NAMC 6-9 diploma program I plan on taking the NAMC 9-12 program and possibly the NAMC 3-6 program as well so that I will be able to work with my children’s splinter skills wherever they are, developmentally.

In my opinion Montessori seems to fit the needs of my children much better than what I am experiencing in the public school system, even though we are in a very good school district and that has worked well with my older sons.

I have thought about this deeply and for a long time. I am very excited and have already started reading and learning. The NAMC 6-12 Classroom Guide has already helped me better understand what I have read in Dr. Montessori’s books.

Related NAMC Blogs:
The NAMC diploma program and materials provide a comprehensive curriculum for Montessori educators:
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.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Monday, January 30, 2012.

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