This post will be less of an exhaustive guide and more of a collection of lessons I’ve learned on the subject. Neurotypicals often learn very differently from Aspies, and just as your teachers have (hopefully) adapted to your learning style, you should adapt to your students’. Even if you don’t plan to become a full-time teacher, you may need to TA undergraduate classes while earning your graduate degree and so should be prepared. My experience comes from one year teaching 5th-12th graders at a marine science camp, two years as a TA in undergraduate classes, and two years working as a Divemaster.
Don’t Get Stuck on Lists and Categories
Asking students to remember sets of information is ok to a point, and as an Aspie you may be very fond of lists, categories, and hierarchies (as I am). While this sort of structure can help us to organize and remember information, most neurotypicals don’t work that way! Especially when dealing with elementary and middle school students, nobody will remember the “four traits all echinoderms share,” but everyone will remember that they can regenerate body parts because you told them about brittle stars regrowing arms! Even with high school students, memory and understanding seem to improve as you help them visualize concepts with demonstrations, stories, or exciting descriptions.
Don’t Use Exclusively Formal Language
As a scientist, I value precise, accurate, and succinct writing. Unfortunately, teaching using only this language doesn’t usually go over well! When teaching grade school students (and in many cases undergraduates) speaking in a more casual, conversational manner can be more effective. As I see it, the language with which you would write a peer-reviewed paper or give a conference presentation is designed to transmit as much information as possible in a limited space or timeframe. It does that job quite well, but it simply isn’t how neurotypicals talk to each other! An an Aspie, I often slip into formal language when explaining things because I like the precision and I don’t want to leave out any information. I imagine other Aspies may feel the same. When teaching neurotypicals, you should try to mix this precise language with more conversational and generalized language appropriate for the students’ age group. You can use simple metaphors for grade school (zooxanthellae is the in-house chef for a coral polyp), case studies or historical experiments for high school or college, etc. Even when discussing dense scientific topics, try to mix the precise, high-level language with more casual explanations to help your students understand the material and feel more comfortable. Reading dense scientific papers is a skill all science students need to learn, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that even professors speak casually with their students and amongst themselves. Teaching doesn’t need to be too formal!
Be Flexible in your Explanations and Teaching Style
Just as Aspies and other Autistic folks are incredibly diverse, any two Neurotypicals probably don’t learn quite the same way. A particular example or way of explaining a concept may work for some or even most of your students, but you will always have at least one student that struggles with your default way of explaining something. There are a few ways of dealing with this. You can of course think of a new way of explaining the concept, or…you can get your students to do it for you! Try getting the students to explain the concept back to you by splitting them into groups and having them apply a principle to a specific situation as a team or draw out the full life cycle of an animal, or even assign different parts of the lesson to each student. They can then learn these pieces on their own and teach their portion back to the class. Obviously which method you should use heavily depends on the age and educational level of the students, as well as the class context (for example, having students act out the characteristics shared by all marine mammals charades style is great for a science outreach event with elementary or middle schoolers, but not so much for undergrads in a zoology lab!). If you’ve been teaching for a while you probably have a way of saying and doing things that you like and makes sense to you. But no matter how experienced you get you need to be ready to adapt your teaching to your students. If you try giving your students a little bit more of a voice in the classroom, you might be surprised at the creative ways they come up with to explain concepts you’ve known for years.
Your students will get things wrong. They will miss questions on exams, screw up lab reports, and give incorrect responses in class. They are human, and that is ok. I have known a few Aspies (myself included) who prefer simple feedback when this happens to them. “You did that wrong.” “Ok, show me how to do it right.” No hard feelings, no wasted time. We don’t often dwell on our own mistakes, both because that would be unpleasant and because we prefer to learn from them and move on. Most people are not like this. At least not always. Most of your students will benefit from a gentler approach, so as not to bruise their ego and discourage them from engaging with your lesson. Proper learning requires confidence in one’s ability to learn, and it is as much your job to nurture that confidence as it is to teach material. Show your students that you are invested in their understanding and that you respect them, and they will be open to learning from you. If a student raises their hand in class and gets the question wrong, don’t just say “no” and move to the next person. Talk about whether they are on the right track, if they have elements of the correct answer in theirs, or even the method they used to solve the problem. All of this may seem inefficient, and it absolutely is. But a desire for efficiency is no excuse to be inconsiderate or condescending. I have seen professors with a royal superiority complex outright refuse to treat their students with respect because “there is a lot of material to get through” or “they aren’t paid to make students feel good.” To teach well, you must engage your students, make them feel welcome, and create a respectful, positive learning environment. This will never be efficient. Have some humility, and don’t look down on your students.
Make Class Engaging and Interactive
This might be the fiftieth time you’ve given this lecture. You know the points you want to make, you know the concepts to highlight, and you know exactly how long it will take. The whole experience is probably a little monotonous for you. But from your students’ perspectives, this is brand new information that can be difficult to understand! You must never lose sight of this. No matter which level or age group you teach, neurotypical students often struggle with long, sterile lectures. Class activities, such as small group discussions or debates, group research or writing projects, or (with younger kids) games that illustrate class concepts allow students to grapple with class material while giving them a break from the endless powerpoints.
As an undergrad I took a biochemistry course where the final grade was determined by two midterm exams and a final. There were no homework assignments, group discussions, projects, or attendance requirements; only the tests mattered. At the time I loved this, because I was more than capable of skimming the textbook and memorizing everything I would need for the tests. At the same time my research advisor was teaching an undergrad course with weekly reading quizzes and online homework, semester-long group projects, in-class experiments, and group discussions. I disliked classes like hers because there were so many moving pieces to keep track of. She told me to ask my classmates about how much biochemistry they remembered after the semester had ended, and (predictably) very few of us could recall anything beyond a few basic principles. Meanwhile students in her class had been more engaged with the material and were better able to retain what they had learned afterwards. My experiences since have confirmed that, for most people, classes that focus on engaging students will be more successful at actually teaching them, rather than getting them to memorize things for a semester.
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