Supporting Autistic Students in the Classroom
Teaching an autistic child can be both rewarding and challenging at times. If this is your first time teaching an autistic person, it can feel overwhelming figuring out what to do or how to best support that child in order to set the stage for optimal learning. Educators must teach to children’s strengths, create a predictable environment, and be aware of sensory needs. Luckily, there are lots of resources out there to educate and guide teachers to help make a child’s school experience a good one.
It is important to understand that an educator’s role is to guide the child and not try to change who that child is. None of us can predict the future outcomes for a child or what they may achieve later in life. Good teaching fosters growth and development, paving the way for a child to reach their full potential.
What are the learning strengths of autistic children?
Visual Learners – Autistic children are visual learners. Auditory processing tends to be weaker. Visual information is fixed, permanent, are predictable. The spoken word disappears, is forgotten and a child make be still processing the first sentence while the third one is being said. Use visual supports to increase understanding, foster autonomy, and provide stability.
Memory – Memory can be more for facts and details than the sequencing or recall of an event, but it is great for rote learning such as the times table or simple addition facts, or for rules.
Detail Focused – Attention to details can transfer into in-depth knowledge that goes way beyond the curriculum. Be sure to use this knowledge around an interest for any aspect of the curriculum such as writing topics, research, book reports etc.
Kinesthetic Learners – Most children learn by doing. They need to interact with their environment and learn about the world by involving their senses. Be wary of using too much technology, especially with young children who need to get firsthand experience.
Teach to these strengths! Remember – it’s easier for us to adapt to the child rather than the child adapting to us. This is why it’s important to have as many tools and teaching strategies at your fingertips so that you can be flexible with delivery and be able to change course quickly.
The Importance of Predictability
Having a predictable environment and day is important because predictability:
- lessons anxiety
- reduces fear over change
- helps with transitions
- gives a clear beginning, middle and end to an event/activity
- supports autonomy
- supports communication by increasing initiation and interaction
A predictable classroom has a structured physical environment, uses visual supports, established routines, and structured activities.
Why is a structured environment needed?
Establishing visual cues and schedules within the classroom will help children make transitions with a minimum of behaviors of concern occurring. Autistic children will have difficulty making independent transitions to new activities due to their lack of understanding of nonverbal cues and anxiety around any new situation. Attention and sensory needs will impact the ability to focus on the main speaker in the classroom due to distractions. They will struggle to isolate relevant and meaningful information from classroom activities and materials from everything else that is going on around them.
What does the physical environment look like?
The well organized classroom has:
- predictability and stability through routines and visual supports
- defined areas of appropriate size for an activity
- clear cues to children and staff about expectations for the area
- allows for supervision
- areas that support targeted skills for scheduled activities
- areas that limit distraction and help with focus
- an environment that increase engagement and prevent challenging behavior
- support for independence through routines and everyday activities
- defined work spaces
There should also be areas for:
- one to one instruction
- small groups
- independent work
- full group instruction
- transition – which can be for switching tasks but remaining in the same area or switching between areas in the room
- cool down or sensory space that should never be used for time outs, punishment, or seclusion
- the teacher
Why are visual supports so important?
- Autistic children tend to be visual learners so visuals support their strength.
- They create predictability which lessens anxiety.
- They improve understanding.
- Visuals provide structure and routine.
- They build confidence.
- Opportunities for interaction are provided.
- Adults communicate more clearly when they are using visual supports.
Types of Visual Supports
Visual supports can take many forms. You may have to try several different types to figure out which ones a child prefers and understands best. Some examples of visual supports are:
- tactile symbols/objects of reference – Ex. a book means story time; a ball means time for outdoor play etc.
- photographs – so easy to produce in the digital age
- short videos
- miniatures of real objects
- colored pictures
- line drawings
- written words – I always recommend putting text with picture visuals. My autistic daughter could read at age 4 before she could speak.
Use visual supports for:
- making choices – start by teaching this concept with a preferred and non-preferred activity so the child starts to understand they are making a choice
- first/then – Ex. First we clean up/ Then we go outside. First/then can also be motivational.
- single messages – going to toilet, play outside, snack time
- timetable, schedules, sequences of activities
- task breakdown – the individual steps for a task such as washing hands, dressing for outdoors. This supports recognizing relationships between steps of an activity.
- to show units of time – 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes
Understanding units of time will lead to better time management. I won’t go in-depth on this topic because I wrote an article about this called Teaching the Concept of Time. Time management is an executive function skill. Children need to learn how long tasks take to do to manage their day to day needs which will help them as they mature and become more independent. Anxiety will also be reduced when it is clear when a task is starting and when it will end.
Supporting Sensory Needs
Every individual has their own sensory profile. Autistic children experience challenges in processing sensory information from their own bodies and from the environment. Paula Aquilla, occupational therapist, says, “The key to understanding a person’s response to sensation or their need to seek out sensation is to observe with an open mind and without judgement. We can all become detectives to determine possible underlying reasons for a child’s response to the sensation we present when we want to interact.”
In order to understand a child’s sensory needs, we need to observe them in action and follow a sensory checklist to create a profile. This profile can then be used to create a sensory diet. A sensory diet, first created by occupational therapists Wilbarger and Wilbarger (1991) , is an individualized plan of physical activities and accommodations to help a person meet their sensory needs. This plan provides the sensory input needed to stay focused and organized throughout the day. For example, some people may feel overwhelmed or overloaded and need to get to a calmer state; some may feel lethargic or sluggish and need some activities to feel alert.
The main goal of a sensory diet is to prevent sensory and emotional overload by meeting the nervous system’s sensory needs; however, it can also be used as a recovery technique. Understanding a child’s sensory profile and the activities which create calmness and regulation can really help when a child feels overwhelmed and out of control. Engaging children in sensory experiences on a regular schedule can support focus, attentiveness and interaction. Children may feel less anxious when they feel comfortable and in control.
Incorporate Interests Into the School Day
Incorporating a child’s interests into the school day supports happiness and well-being, provides enjoyment, motivation, and adds meaning to activities and the curriculum. Interests can also be expanded upon to increase knowledge and learn new skills. I have written a couple of blog posts on the importance of interests and how to use them in different aspects of the curriculum.
The school community plays a big role in a child’s life. If an autistic child’s learning strengths and needs are supported and accommodated, the outcome is a strong one. Education is the springboard for lifelong learning and enjoyment. The classroom experience should be a positive one and it can be with a structured physical environment, work systems, and clear visual supports.
Have a great school year!
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