The Intersection of Poverty and Autism

Perhaps the most difficult yet personally and professionally illuminating part of being in the Curriculum and Instruction program this year is that I am not teaching in a general education classroom. Instead, I am working twenty-eight hours weekly providing behavior therapy using Applied Behavior Analysis for two early learners with autism. Oftentimes when confronted with an assignment in my C & I program, I have to dredge up units from my past schools. While the benefit of reflective hindsight is certainly invaluable, I lament that I am not able to try out new ideas and understandings on a current crop of students. Yet, a decided benefit of this year is that I have been given the opportunity to experience first-hand how the interaction of social forces as discussed by Parkay, Hass & Anctil (2010) impact student learning and achievement.  According to Parkay et al. (2010) there are ten contemporary trends and issues that impact curriculum and teaching at the national and international level, local community level, and the culture of an educational setting. These include:

  • Increasing Ethnic and Cultural Diversity
  • The Environment
  • Changing Values and Morality
  • Family
  • Technological Revolution
  • Changing World of Work
  • Equal Rights
  • Crime and violence
  • Lack of Purpose and Meaning
  • Global Interdependence

In my case, I bear witness to the social force that family has on student readiness and ability to be successful. Parkay et al. (2010) paint a discouraging picture of the reality that many of our students face day by day:

“The stress placed on families in a complex society is extensive and not easily handled. For some families, such stress can be overwhelming. The structure of families who are experiencing the effects of financial problems, substance abuse, or violence for example, can easily begin to crumble. Children in these families are more likely to experience health and emotional problems as well as difficulties at school” (p. 52).

This is a fairly accurate description of the family I work with. All three children ages seven, six and three are on the autism spectrum. The house is chaotic, extremely dirty and smoky. Money is always a major source of stress and disagreements are played out through loud confrontations. Discipline is inconsistent and consists of yelling, placating and promises of rewards for expectations that can’t possibly be met. The seven year old that I work with has attended four self-contained SPED classrooms in four different schools in less than five months…I could go on but I think the situation is sufficiently clear. While there are multiple issues at play here, I believe that poverty is a major factor in my kiddos readiness for ABA therapy and school. In the latest issue of Education Leadership, Eric Jensen writes about the seven reasons that students from low-income households are likely to struggle with engagement. They are:

  • Health and nutrition- “Overall, poor people are less likely to exercise, get proper diagnoses, receive appropriate and prompt medical attention, or be prescribed appropriate medications or interventions” (p. 24). Tonight’s dinner was a choice of pancakes or cold cereal, despite there being other food in the cupboard; Mom didn’t feel like cooking. This was the same meal as last night, and last week. So, sometimes we’ll use part of therapy time to cook something, or I’ll just simply give him a piece of my fruit.
  • Vocabulary- “Children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller vocabulary than middle-class children do…” (p. 25). My seven year old kiddo didn’t know what a salad was because salads simply aren’t eaten in this household, so he has no frame of reference. I make a point of answering my kiddos questions using appropriate vocabulary; he’s curious but isn’t accustomed to having his questions answered.
  • Effort- “…the passive “I give up” posture may actually be learned helplessness, shown for decades in research as a symptom of a stress disorder and depression” (p. 26). My seven-year-old kiddo often says “I can’t do it, too hard” and becomes extremely frustrated when confronted with a novel task and his younger brother (and sister) have begun echoing the same refrain. I remain positive and set-up situations where my kiddos can be successful simply by trying.
  • Cognition- “Commonly, low-SES children show cognitive problems, including short attention spans, high levels of distractibility, difficulty monitoring the quality of their work, and difficulty generating new solutions to problems” (p. 28).  We use a program called Handwriting Without Tears to teach my older kiddo how to write his letters- this is an arduous process. I’ve integrated self-monitoring of work by simply asking, “How’s that letter looking? and “Which has straighter line?” and “Do you know how to write an ____ now?”
  • Relationships- “In homes of those from poverty, children commonly get twice as many reprimands as positive comments, compared with a 3:1 ratio of positives to negatives in middle-class homes” (p. 28). My older kiddo and his younger siblings are constantly in trouble in a house where the discipline is arbitrary and inconsistent. My three-year-old kiddo had a thirty-one minute full-blown tantrum today because I placed a demand during Intensive Table Time; I maintained my calm, controlled the situation and followed through on my demand that he follow directions. This is in contrast to how the slightest whine or cry on his part is quickly pacified by his parents. Consistency is key.
  • Distress- “…affects brain development, academic success, and social competence…it also impairs behaviors; reduces attentional control; boosts impulsivity; and impairs working memory.” (p. 29). When there is chaos reigning in the household (yelling and shouting) both of my kiddos performance on learning tasks is effected both in the moment and lingers through out three-hour session. When life is too chaotic, I will simply give my kiddos a break and focus on another aspect of their program such as social interaction. If something is happening in the house and they’re distracted, they’re not ready to learn, it’s a simply as that.

What’s not simple is to know where the interaction of poverty and autism are mutually exclusive or affect and reinforce one another; this is beyond the scope of my knowledge. What I do know is that I have been given an opportunity to observe and interact with social forces that impact not only these learners, but also numerous students in US schools. I know that it will take time and distance for me to fully realize all I’ve learned this past year about teaching, autism and humanity but I know that my teaching will be forever touched by this journey.


Jensen, Eric. (2013, May). How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. Educational Leadership, 24-30.

Parkay, Forrest W., Hass, Glen, & Anctil, Eric J. (2010). Social Forces: Present and Future. In Forrest W. Parkay, Glenn Hass &, Eric J. Anctil (Eds). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs Ninth Edition (pp. 49-62). New York: Pearson.



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