Big Picture Learning and the Autism Spectrum

2542582474_7d6d27790c_oA group of educators, including myself, was invited last year to help create the second BPL school in Canada. There are two Met Schools now in Canada and they happen to be in Winnipeg in the Seven Oaks School Division. Our new school, the Maples Met School, began in September 2016 and it has been a brilliant experience.

One of the fascinating trends we have noticed as a faculty is that learners on the Autism Spectrum have gravitated to our model. Our neighbouring school (and our heroes for mentoring us this year!), the Seven Oaks Met School, has also noticed this trend. While this has been really exciting, I was underprepared and we needed to do some action-research on the fly.

I have taught Canadian History for the past number of years at an independent school, so coming into a brand new Met School with such diversity has been incredibly rewarding and challenging. That’s not to say that many of us have not encountered learners on the Autism Spectrum in our career, but within BPL schools and the Seven Oaks School Division, inclusivity is a central tenet.

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Karen Hiscott, Principal of Constable Finney School

Having said this, we had a tremendous amount to learn. By January, we were feeling pretty overwhelmed and we were equally frustrated at our collective inability to properly serve these incredible students. By chance, as things generally go, I attended a regularly scheduled monthly administration meeting.  At this meeting, a colleague of mine, Karen Hiscott, who was then the principal of Governor Semple School (She has moved on to be the Principal at Constable Finney School) was speaking to her research she had/has undertaken for her Master’s Degree thesis.

Karen spoke about how she had some profound experiences working with students on the Spectrum and this led to her line of inquiry and passion for working with learners with Autism. I immediately clung to Karen’s passion and wisdom and asked her to meet with our faculty to present some of her findings. Because she is awesome, she immediately offered her time and expertise.
She pointed us to several resources, but one of the most profound might be Barry Prizant’s book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. Karen’s research and Dr. Prizant’s book gave me a completely different understanding of Autism, where our learners might be at, and how our school might better nurture the amazing gifts and enthusiasms that our learners possess.
Through Karen’s research and dedication and Dr. Pizant’s years of experience, the Maples Met began and has begun to create an environment and educative experiences which seek to honour all our learners and also to nurture and respect those students on the Autism Spectrum.

We have failed many times and have had a few victories here and there, but one thing is for certain: Big Picture Schools are indeed ideally designed for learners on the Autism Spectrum.

At this year’s Big Bang (The Big Picture Learning network annual conference), I invite you to join our school in a conversation about how we create learning communities that are inclusive to all students. We will be sharing the voices of some of our students and their families about what has worked at our BPL school and what has not.

If you do decide to join us on July 26th at 1:30 pm (You can register using Guidebook), here are some resources that might prove valuable in preparation (Thanks to Karen Hiscott, Jennifer McGowan, and Dr. Tomy):

Prizant, B.M. (2015). Uniquely human: A different way of seeing autism. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Quek et al. (2012). Co-occurring anger in young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 68(10), pp 1142-1148.

Simone, R. (2010). Aspergirls: Empowering females with Asperger Syndrome. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.