Teaching Science to Autistic Students May Improve Social Skills, New Research Finds

Date: October 29, 2015
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Gabe Kahn
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New York, N.Y. – New research suggests that an elementary school curriculum that focuses on the sciences might be particularly beneficial to individuals with autism, enhancing not only their classroom knowledge, but their social skills, as well. “Teaching Paleobiology to Children with Autism” will be presented at a poster session on November 1 at the 2015 Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in Baltimore, Md. by Dina Beck-Billig, a senior at Touro’s Lander College for Women–The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School (LCW) in Manhattan, and Dr. Howard R. Feldman, a paleontologist and biology professor at LCW. 

“Children with autism have restrictive interests and fixations, but these areas of special interest can be harnessed academically,” said Beck-Billig. “When these curiosities are nurtured, the students can become verbally passionate about what they love and the fixations can be used to help motivate them to interact with the world and people through their subject.”

Instead of classroom instruction that strives to improve social cues—abstract concepts that can be stressful for individuals with autism—the research proposes that cultivating students’ interests in factually based subjects like the sciences will provide a pathway to improving their personal skills.

“Science, specifically paleobiology, can be used as a bridge to help children with autism better connect with, interact with, and understand their immediate environments,” said Beck-Billig. “Teachers can harness the sensory component integral to science, as well as use it to deepen students’ understanding of natural phenomena. Furthermore, incorporating effective teaching methods into paleobiology methodologies can help students with autism become more settled in their social, natural and sensory environments.”

Her thesis was developed through researching more than a dozen texts on autism, special needs education and the sciences; her interviews with several leading experts on autism and other social disabilities; and from her own experience as a special needs instructor.

“The anxiety autistic children experience from learning social behavior makes them want to give up and retreat into their own world,” she said. “They have to learn to adapt to changes, to transition, to not being so inflexible and rigid in their schedule. The question is how to discuss it in a way that’s natural, and I believe it’s particularly effective to integrate it into the scientific curriculum.”

Whether in the classroom or in small groups, Beck-Billig, 20, from Brooklyn, says that her methods have yielded encouraging results. She added that science is only one of a handful of subjects that could prove to be effective for autistic students.

“It can be paleobiology or another science, or even history,” she said. “The principles are the same.

“The point is to take abstract concepts and concretize them with known facts.”

Dr. Feldman believes that the findings could offer an alternative method for teaching students with disabilities.

“The research demonstrates that factually based subjects such as paleobiology and other sciences can be a useful tool in the hands of a talented teacher,” said Dr. Feldman, director of the Center for Geological & Environmental Sciences at Touro College. “A new methodology that will enable children with autism to improve in their development can be invaluable to both teachers and parents.”


About the Touro College and University System

Touro is a system of non-profit institutions of higher and professional education. Touro College was chartered in 1970 primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage, and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 18,000 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has branch campuses, locations and instructional sites in the New York area, as well as branch campuses and programs in Berlin, Jerusalem, Moscow and Paris. New York Medical College, Touro University California and its Nevada branch campus, as well as Touro University Worldwide and its Touro College Los Angeles division are separately accredited institutions within the Touro College and University System. For further information on Touro College, please go to: www.touro.edu/news/.

The Lander College for Women is an undergraduate division of Touro, a student-centered college located in midtown Manhattan where Jewish women follow a rigorous academic program as they pursue their baccalaureate degrees, while continuing and deepening their Torah education and commitment. For more information on the Lander College for Women, please go to http://lcw.touro.edu.