Students start with an Entrance Ticket: What is autism?, so I can find out the classes' background knowledge/comfort level with autism.
This can be a sensitive subject, as sometimes there will be autistic students or students with special needs in your class, as well as students who have siblings or close friends with autism. However, giving kids the time to write about the subject before discussion gives the teacher time to circulate to find out more about student's opinions and background knowledge. Often, I will preview tickets, and then quietly ask specific students to share their responses.
I also announce to the class that, as a whole, we have to be very sensitive about the way we approach this topic. I often say I will let students know if a comment has been said in an inappropriate way. Often, I'll introduce the term PC or politically correct, and we'll talk about its meaning.
Next, we'll have the whole class discussion based on the entrance ticket. This section of the unit is great for building background knowledge for the "disability awareness unit," which comes up later in the year.
I pose the question on the entrance ticket and students will present any background information they may have on the topic.
Again, I make a point of saying that this subject can be sensitive. Often, I'll ask why that may be. Students can tell each other that it is important to approach the topic in a respectful manner as not to offend anyone or hurt anyone's feelings.
Next, I'll show a clip from Rainman. Before I show the clip, I ask students to pay close attention to the two characters having a dialogue. What do they notice about each character?
NOTE TO VIEWER, inapproriate language warning at 1:37 to avoid the bad word. : )
After I show the clip, we have a discussion about the two characters. Many kids note that the savant character (Ray, or Dustin Hoffman) has a great memory. Many kids associate this with autism, because during the discussion, someone will note that sometimes people with autism have an area of great specialization, where they know a great deal about one subject and take a deep interest.
Another thing to note is the character being portrayed in Rainman doesn't have autism, he is a savant. However, I show the clip because there are similar effects and the clip helps kids visualize some symptoms of autism.
Finally, we begin reading and annotating "The Day My Son Went Missing."
Before I begin reading, I explain we're looking for author's purpose, or the author's attitude towards autism. We purposefully build background knowledge about autism before we sit down and tackle this complex article.
The author of this article's son wanders due to his autism. She is very passionate about finding a solution to this problem, and as we read, I high-light using student input any time I see evidence of her attitude. I also annotate in the margins. We will continue the next day if I don't finish reading aloud the article on day one. We will continue with independent practice the next day.