Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can range from individuals who are very mildly impaired to those who are very severely impaired. Tailoring your teaching to kids on either end of the spectrum carries unique challenges. Here are some tools to help you understand and meet those challenges.
Teaching Severely Impaired Students With Autism
Severely impaired children typically have greater difficulty in social interactions and with academic progress. This makes it important to craft an IEP, or individualized education program, that best suits each child’s needs.
The IEP should guide the instruction of a child with autism toward the acquisition of specific life skills relevant to their present and future success. An IEP that doesn’t promote greater functioning isn’t doing its job and should be revised to better meet the child’s needs.
Teachers who work with severely impaired students might also see positive results from:
- Attending workshops and continuing education programs on educating children with autism.
- Setting up regular communication with parents and involving them in practicing newly-acquired and emerging skills.
- Addressing sensory needs through a mixture of teamwork and interactions in familiar environments.
- Repeating the introduction of a skill until it’s mastered and maintaining it through regular practice.
- Recognizing the importance of emphasizing what the student is supposed to be doing over what they shouldn’t be.
- Refusing to focus on failures; praising successes.
- Identifying essential supports required by the student and providing appropriate cues for completing tasks.
- Being prepared to change to a different activity, perhaps of greater or lesser difficulty, when attention wanders.
- Offering a range of tasks with differing difficulties, but with an emphasis on easier-to-complete tasks that foster a sense of security and accomplishment.
- Use daily interactions to emphasize appropriate responses so students can better understand what’s expected throughout the school day.
Teaching Mildly Impaired Students With Autism
Students with mild ASD often have problems with organization. This skillset can be lacking even in students with excellent grades and may be present as persistent failure to remember assignment deadlines or to bring essential materials to class. When this is the case, it’s best to provide support in the least restrictive manner possible.
Here are some suggested approaches:
- Teaching the child to maintain a list of assignments and their due dates.
- Pasting a picture or list of essential materials on the notebook they bring to class or inside their locker, if utilized between classes.
- Offering praise for remembering to bring or do things that have been forgotten frequently in the past.
- Withholding the “lecture” about forgotten items or assignments because it may actually exacerbate the problem.
You may notice improvement when working with students who have mild ASD if you:
- Present concepts and abstracts with visual cues such as pictures or text.
- Recognize that stress can cause increased behavioral issues, and that stress may not be alleviated until the student can remove themselves from the situation. Offer assistance in helping the child re-engage with the situation and provide support, perhaps in the form of a safe place or person, during the activity.
- Don’t assume outbursts are directed at you. Students with mild ASD aren’t usually capable of being manipulative, so take outbursts calmly and realize that the behavior is likely an effort to get through scary or confusing experiences.
- Be specific in your interactions through the use of concrete language.
- Avoid open-ended questions and use pointed questions that allow only a few specific responses.
- Understand that those with mild autism spectrum disorder typically view speech, both theirs and yours, as literal. Don’t engage in using sarcasm, nicknames, double entendre (many jokes work on the premise of double entendre), idioms, or cutesy names like “Pal” and “Champ.”
- Remember that children with autism have difficulty reading body language or picking up facial cues.
Also keep in mind that kids with ASD may perceive a regular amount of noise or clutter as too much stimulation, or too little. Be prepared to make changes that will help reduce the sensory overload that can plague them.
Make sure to prepare your students for changes in their routine as well by providing visual cues and reminders that the change will be happening. Create a written reminder such as text, or a visual one like a calendar to prepare students for:
- Substitute teacher in class.
- School assembly where there may be more noise and sensory input than normal.
- Classes being rescheduled.
- Classroom rules being changed.
Always be mindful of appropriate procedures for dealing with behavior and other issues. Remember that when teaching students with mild ASD, consistent expectations and treatment from each member of the team working with the child is essential to reinforcing good behaviors and teaching proper social cues.
All Students are Capable of Learning
Every student has the capacity to learn. Feeling out that capacity and using it to its fullest extent will help students with autism learn more and have better outcomes over the long term, no matter their cognitive abilities.