Why the Montessori Method for Children with Autism?
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 primary 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 can 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. The Montessori equipment for writing has every stroke of writing broken down into shapes which the children trace until they perfect their ability to make the stroke. Then writing comes naturally. Montessori took larger things and broke them down into their step by step processes. This process is used in the autism treatment called ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis).
Children with autism often have difficulty in categorizing information they receive in and organized manner. This makes retrieving connected information or even connecting information that belong together. The Montessori Method teaches things from the whole to the parts. It teaches how and why things are connected and related. Also in science, social studies and other subjects, one of the skills taught is classification such as: living/non-living, separating things found in each room of a house, types of leaves, and classes of animals.
Children with autism often have trouble developing language building and vocabulary. Montessori equipment is designed to increase vocabulary. One little girl started at the Montessori school in which I volunteered at 5 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. The isolation of sounds could help a nonverbal child become verbal.
Families have difficulty exposing children with autism to many varied environments. (This comes from experience. It is 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 different environments (garden, indoor, outdoor, terrariums, etc.) and go on field trips to different environments (desert, beach, forest) depending on where the school is located.
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. Then, when all that can be learned has been, the directress will redirect to a new task expanding the child’s world and used the beloved material as a reinforcer after completing a disliked work (first write, then use the color tablets).
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 naturally gravitate 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 and the teacher would facilitate the inclusion of the autistic child teaching him/her how to interact with peers in real life situation.
The Montessori Method individualizes the education to the specific needs of each child which means it can encourage strengths and help with weakness.
Why Montessori for autistic children in particular? Because the Montessori Method was originated 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 then in traditional schools. Using picture communication and scheduling would also be helpful. Using the TEACH method for those who need that kind of structure can easily be included. Using Dr. Greenspan’s Floortime model to get into the child’s world and bring him into ours would also be possible.
The Montessori Method seems to address the needs of children with autism better than dominant educational philosophy used now. It was originally designed to teach special needs children so it is specifically designed in a way that can be useful in educating them.