Autism Awareness Month: 6 Strategies For Teaching Students With Autism

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servephotographyAutism, unfortunately, is on the rise.

The Center for Disease Control states that 1:88 children are diagnosed with some type of disorder on the autism-spectrum. Before, many of these students were placed in special settings. This is no longer the case. Today, these students are in mainstream classes with an Individualized Education Plan.

Teachers without special education specialization often teach these students in mixed setting. I was talking with a special needs student in my class recently about this subject. She said she really loved being in the classroom with her peers–that it was good for her because she made so many friends, and she knows that when she goes to college or work, there won’t be an IEP, but that it was also good for all the other students to work with “different types of people.” It’s great when we can really have these conversations–when the students get a voice.

Sometimes inspiring an inclusion classroom–one that has special needs students alongside all other students can be challenging. Students on the autism spectrum are so unique in their needs–there is no “one-size fits all” teaching method. This can be frustrating for classroom teachers who have to balance the needs of every student in the class, and many not fully understand the manifestations of autism. Students with autism struggle to communicate, to recognize emotion, and to interact appropriately, because they cannot recognize social-emotional cues. Often, they must be told, “I am happy,” or “I am angry,” or shown how to interact in certain social situations. They miss nuances. Despite this, they are academically solid. Often, they have areas of interest where they’ll soar above all other students. They are unique–a true joy to teach.

It’s Autism Awareness Month. Here are a few tips to help the average classroom teacher benefit students with autism.

1. Create a classroom routine

Students with autism appreciate routine.  Non-autistic students appreciate routine, too, so this is helpful to the class at large. If you are setting up classroom systems geared toward students with autism, chances are all students will benefit.

Try this: establish a pattern which includes a classroom greeting, a special starter activity, then similar transition cues and wrap-ups. Close the activity or day the same way, setting up structure, clear expectations, and routine. If you change the routine, be sure to use plenty of advance-notice verbal cues.

2. Use preparatory commands and commands of execution to cue transitions

Students with autism often struggle with transitions. Using preparatory commands–commands that cue in on the forthcoming action words–help these transitions.  Again, this structure is helpful for all students. Using the preparatory command, “When I say move we will…” followed by command of execution, “move,” sets up clear expectations. “In five minutes we will finish that paper and discuss it.” “Okay, now let’s switch papers and discuss answer two.”

3. Give fewer choices

Students with autism can get overwhelmed when given list-style selections.  Try using just two choices. This helps declutter the landscape and yet still allows students to make a decision.

4. Find “their thing” but be aware of aversions.  I have had many autistic students. One was a debate master, another a political expert, a computer person and a music lover. If I can find some way to tie my lesson into their area of expertise, it’s going to be a good lesson. However, students with autism often have specific aversions–these can range from environmental, to touch, to texture–it’s important to be aware if these exist. I don’t always take them away completely–noise is one example–but I introduce appropriate aversions in a controlled manner. Introducing these things when appropriate–in a safe environment–helps students prepare for work or college when people don’t always think about these things, and students have to express their needs for themselves.

5. Use appropriate technology

There is so much helpful technology for students with autism. One study showed that off-the-shelf video games can actually have therapeutic value for children with autism.

6. Treat them like any other kid as much as possible

Sure, students with autism have specific needs, but so does every kid. Make sure students with autism get the “kid” experience, not the “autistic kid” experience, or the “special needs” treatment. This makes a difference. One day, I was telling jokes in class. My autistic kid laughed–a big laugh. It took me a minute to realize, “Wow… he…laughed!” If you are a parent of a child with autism, you know what that means. That means he understood humor and body language–both very big achievements. I called his mom. These victories are huge–milestones. One parent told me, “He never went to a birthday party before, now he has friends.” That is priceless for a parent and a student.

Never underestimate the impact you can have on your students with autism. When you take the time to learn some autism-specific strategies and dispel the myths, it makes a critical difference. When you notice students with autism opening up, it’s a gift. The fact that these strategies are often helpful to all students–it just doesn’t get any better than that.

As we travel through Autism awareness month, let us share stories. I encourage you to visit some of the resources in this article, which are links to Learnist boards giving strategies and information for working with students with autism. If you are experienced, please consider adding strategies and comments to these boards, so that together, we can improve education not only for students with autism, but for all the students in the classroom.

Image attribution flickr user servephotography