Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) manifests itself in unique ways from person to person. For the purpose of teaching a child with ASD, it is important for school staff to embrace the concept of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that students experience and interact with the world around them in different ways. Teachers who understand, accept, and embrace these differences help empower students with ASD through offering supports targeted at their specific needs and differences.
How Does Learning Differ for Students with Autism?
It is important to understand that the learning of students with ASD is not necessarily impacted by a lack of cognitive ability. Rather, their struggles in the classroom tend to have origins rooted in social-emotional, communication or sensorimotor struggles.
Students with ASD tend to develop fixations of specific topics, object, or interests. Their knowledge of these narrowly focused areas can be astonishing. The child may demonstrate a level of mastery the autistic student is capable of when they are interested and engaged. A teacher can capitalize on this motivation by relating new skills to their current interest.
Students with ASD tend to learn better when placed in small groups or have individualized attention from a teacher or para-professional. Although autistic individuals tend to have difficulty with social relationships, they may also find peer interaction motivating. Finding ways for them to engage with other students is critical to their development and success. Additionally, autistic students tend to be visual learners and can benefit from new content being presented to them by showing them how to do something along with explanations, and/or providing samples of finished products.
The Challenges Students with Autism Face
Autistic students may struggle with sensory processing and therefore, struggle with or seek out sensory input. Some students may find it difficult to complete tasks, plan ahead, or find new ways to solve a problem due to difficulties with executive functioning. Motor skills may also be impaired in individuals with ASD. Therefore, a great deal of concentration or effort may be required to complete tasks, which may interfere with the student’s ability to focus on the material being presented.
Autistic students may struggle to recognize or respond appropriately to their peers or teacher’s emotional tone of voice, body language, and how to navigate social norms. Language development and communication difficulties are common challenges in autistic students, which contribute to their problems related to socialization.
Supporting Students with Autism in the Classroom
- Use Explicit, Concrete Language Rather Than Relying on Implicit Learning: Because autistic students tend to need explicit instructions to gain skills that other students may be pick up without even trying, it is important for teachers to provide students with clear, simple instructions regarding what is expected, even if it may seem obvious. Young students may need explicit directions about how to play appropriately with others, while older students may need explicit directions on how to enter the classroom and set up for learning.
- Establish a Routine, Include Breaks, and Practice Making Changes: Autistic individuals often tend to engage in repetitive behavioral routines. Routines help individuals with autism feel safe by making the world around more predictable. When a teacher is willing to set up a consistent routine within the classroom, they are making it a more predictable and manageable environment. It is important to note that, while establishing routines, teachers should be sure to include predictable breaks. These breaks are important for reducing overstimulation, providing sensory input, and preparing students focus their attention.The presence of structure in the classroom is a key piece in supporting autistic students. Once specific routines have been established, it can be equally as important to practice flexibility by practicing changes to routines in order to prepare students for times when there are inevitable disruptions. Teachers can lay the groundwork for a potentially disruptive change by starting with a perceived positive change in the routine and working up to a less positive change in the routine. The use of visual timers or schedules can help with disruptions or changes to the routine.
- Reduce Sensory Issues: Many students with ASD experience sensory dysregulation, which may disrupt learning for them. By helping a student identify sensory input that they are seeking or that is hindering them, a teacher can provide the appropriate sensory environment, which may help eliminate a barrier to learning.
- Watch Your Tone: Because students with ASD struggle to decipher social cues, it is important for teachers to maintain a calm, even tone in their interactions with the student, especially when providing feedback. Increased excitement, volume, or different tone of voice may be misinterpreted by the student which may cause a disruption in their day. It may be helpful for the teacher to clarify how they are feeling when speaking to the student.
- Support Transitions by Creating Teams: Transitions, big or small, represent a change and are a potential stumbling block for autistic students. It is helpful to establish a team of individuals at the school who are aware of the student’s needs and can support the student through transitions, and without disruption even if the primary teacher is not present.