Developing a “Visual Rhetoric” for Students on the Spectrum

Jack Trammell RMC pic (1)

Jack Trammell, Ph.D.

Jack Trammell received his B. A. degree in political science from Grove City College and, following a M. Ed., was awarded a Ph. D. in Education, Research and Evaluation from Virginia Commonwealth University. His experience includes working as a special education teacher in the Virginia public schools. He is currently Director of Disability Support Services and Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department, teaching disability studies at Randolph-Macon College. His research interests include disability stigma, transition, and the social mechanisms related to disability discrimination. He can be reached by email at: jtrammel@rmc.edu.

A growing body of research is suggesting that students on the Autism spectrum (including Asperger’s) have a particular preference for or benefit from visual learning activities in many learning situations.  This may be for very specific neurological reasons, but the practical benefits from a learning assistance perspective can very easily be explored and imagined, and present the possibility for diverse and innovative interventions.

For example, training students in group orientation sessions can be supplemented or even replaced with video lecture or online content.  Students on the spectrum are likely to focus better on a video and be less distracted or anxious with the social component removed from the equation.  Of course, if direct communication and face-to-face interaction are the primary learning objectives, that won’t work.  But the enterprising presenter/facilitator/instructor can mix live group action and face-to-face speaking with video monitoring and prerecorded videos, or place recurring content online, and even this blended approach can sometimes mitigate a great deal of communication anxiety for spectrum-oriented students and provide a powerful visual reference for them.

A recent study focusing on college upperclassmen looking for jobs demonstrated that a “visual rhetoric” (an overarching communication framework that focuses on visual techniques) taught through face-to-face meetings and video training could improve job interview performance for students on the spectrum.  The intervention involved students utilizing television sitcom reruns to catalog and organize body language and facial expressions seen on television.  Students were later trained to “play the role” visually of an interviewee using rote cues and dialogues they had studied and matched to specific situations.  This visual approach, with an emphasis on assuming a role, resulted in much greater job interview success (Trammell, 2013; Trembath, Vivanti et al., 2015).

In a similar fashion, some recent studies indicate the potential benefit of playing video games for students on the spectrum, in large part due to the visual component.  A self-identified “Aspie” reports that video games are not just fun but also a safe place to play roles and transition from communications they control to real human communication that carries far greater social risk (Raede 2016).  Some studies show that the benefits of video games can benefit many children, and not just those on the spectrum (Kovess-Masfety, Keys et al., 2016).

Drama related pedagogy is more frequently being used to help students on the spectrum learn to play roles, and assume the kinds of communication behaviors that will help them adapt successfully to the mainstream (Kempe & Tissot, 2012).  Although many projects have focused on younger children, the promise of the technique remains valid for post-secondary students, as the interview example above demonstrates, which utilized a type of drama/role playing.

Postsecondary education, even with an overarching transition to new pedagogies and more online or distance learning for everyone, remains primarily a visual experience.  It also remains, in many settings, an intense exercise in human communication skills which directly impact students on the spectrum in challenging ways.  Developing a visual framework in pedagogical thinking for ASD students will likely prove beneficial in helping this at-risk population of postsecondary students, providing lower stress practice opportunities and a neuro-friendly technique.

References

Kempe, A. and C. Tissot (2012).  The use of drama to teach social skills in a special school setting for students with autism.  Support for Learning 27(3), 97-102.

Kovess-Masfety, V., K. Keys, et al. (2016).  Is time spent playing video game associated with mental health, cognitive and social skills in young children?  Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 51(3), 349-357.

Raede, D. (2016).  Why people with Aspergers play video games.  Retrieved April 22, 2016, from https://www.aspergerexperts.com/go/playvideogames/

Trammell, J. (2013). PRACTICE BRIEF: Modeling positive behaviors for postsecondary students with Autism/Asperger’s: The use of “Television Coaching”. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 26(2), 183-187.

Trembath, D. D., G. Vivanti, et al. (2015). “Accurate or assumed: Visual learning in children with ASD.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 45(10): 3276-3287.

 

 

 

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