“It’s impossible to handle her.”
“He’s totally disruptive and creates a ruckus in my class.”
“What an attention seeker!”
“Do you think she should be attending regular school?”
“He can’t sit still, even for a moment.”
“I don’t think he’s capable of learning.”
These are some of the commonly heard frustrations that come with teaching students with autism.
But what if we tried to understand how the student with autism feels? What if we attributed their behavior to a different brain wiring instead of deliberate disruption?
Not abnormal or dysfunctional – just different.
This better explains their hyperactivity, anxiety, and inability to connect with other children. These behaviors are a cry for help — your help.
At Positive Action, our committee partners with educators by providing schools with the right tools to develop special ed curriculums catered to students with autism.
“What I love most about Positive Action is the way it pertains to the real issues students face in today's world!” — Lori Kessinge, 5th Grade Teacher, Critzer Elementary School, Virginia
ASD is a child developmental disorder that causes significant challenges in social skills, communication, and behavior in young children — and lasts into adulthood.
The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of students with autism can range from gifted to severely challenged. Thus, some require more help in their daily lives while others need less.
An ASD diagnosis now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately:
Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
These conditions are now collectively referred to as autism spectrum disorder.
Students with autism have a wide range of abilities and characteristics — no two children appear or behave the same way. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and often change over time.
Characteristics of ASD fall into two categories:
Challenges with normal back-and-forth conversation
Decreased desire to share personal interests or emotions
Difficulty understanding or responding to social cues like eye contact and facial expressions
Challenges in developing/maintaining/understanding relationships (trouble building friendships)
Hand-flapping and toe-walking
Speaking in a unique way — using odd patterns or pitches in speaking or “scripting” from favorite shows
Exhibiting intense interest in activities that are uncommon for a similarly aged child
Expressing their sensual responses uncommonly or extremely, like indifference to pain/temperature
Excessive smelling/touching of objects
Fascination with lights and movement and being overwhelmed with loud noises
The truth is, while many children with autism have normal intelligence levels, many others have mild or significant intellectual delays.
This is where the right educators play a huge role in teaching students with ASD.
The number of students with autism is on the rise. So a deep understanding of the strategies and social skills needed to handle a class of autistic children is extremely important.
Listed are some tried and true strategies that will ensure every autistic child receives the best education possible.
These strategies apply to both the classroom and home environments.
Structure or routine is the name of the game when it comes to autism. Maintain the same daily routine, only making exceptions for special occasions. During such moments, place a distinct picture that depicts the day’s events in the child's personal planner.
Design an environment free of stimulating factors:
a. Avoid playing loud background music as it makes it difficult for the autistic child to concentrate.
b. Eliminate stress because autistic children quickly pick up on negative emotions. So for example, if you’re experiencing too much stress, leave the classroom until you feel better.
c. Maintain a low and clear voice when engaging the class. Students with autism get easily agitated and confused if a speaking voice is too loud.
d. Some autistic people find fluorescent lights distracting because they can see the flicker of the 60-cycle electricity. To mitigate this effect:
Place the child's desk near the window or try to avoid using fluorescent lights altogether.
If the lights are unavoidable, use the newest bulbs you have as they flicker less.
You can also place a lamp with an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb next to the child's desk.
e. Let students stand instead of sitting around a table for a class demonstration or during morning and evening meetings. Many students with autism tend to rock back and forth so standing allows them to repeat those movements while still listening to the teacher.
Keep verbal instructions short and to the point, because an autistic student may find it difficult to recall the entire sequence. Instead, write the instructions down on a piece of paper.
This seemingly small act matters; take this person with autism for instance:
“I am unable to remember sequences. If I ask for directions at a gas station, I can only remember three steps. Directions with more than three steps have to be written down.”
Go for repetitive motions when working on projects. For example, most autistic classrooms have an area for workbox tasks, such as putting away erasers and pencils. This kind of predictability helps autistic kids stay organized.
Use signs, pictures, and demonstrations for visual learners. For example:
a. When teaching up and down movements, attach cards with the words "up" and "down" to a toy airplane. The "up" card is attached when the plane takes off while the "down" card is attached when it lands.
b. Use a wooden apple cut up into four pieces and a wooden pear cut in half to help students with autism understand the concept of quarters and halves.
“I think in pictures. I do not think in language. All my thoughts are like videotapes running in my imagination. Pictures are my first language.”
Many autistic children hyperfocus on one subject like trains or maps so use that specific interest to motivate school work. With a child who likes trains, for instance, calculate how long it takes for a train to go between New York and Washington. And there you have it, you’ve just solved a math problem.
The fewer the choices, the easier decision-making is for an autistic kid. For instance, if you ask a student to pick a color, limit them to three choices.
Create a few structured one-on-one interactions between students to promote their social skills. Take note that autistic children can’t accurately interpret body language and touch, so minimal physical contact is best.
Parents and caregivers are the true experts on their autistic children. Therefore, to fully support the child in and out of school, teachers should coordinate and share knowledge with them. For example, you can exchange notes on interventions that have worked at home and in school then integrate accordingly.
Lastly, we can’t forget you, dear teacher. Even when you’re doing everything right, teaching students with autism can still be tough, so building resilience is important.
Here are some statements you can recite on difficult days:
“Building a relationship with autistic children doesn’t happen overnight — it takes time, dedication, and patience.”
“Every mistake I make is valuable feedback for figuring out what works.”
“I won’t always get things right off the bat and, ultimately, autistic children are still children, who can be a handful even at the best of times.”
“Autistic children aren’t difficult on purpose. They’re simply doing the best they can with their worldview and available support.”
“Good teachers helped me to achieve success. I was able to overcome autism because I had good teachers. At age 2 1/2 I was placed in a structured nursery school with experienced teachers. Children with autism need to have a structured day and teachers who know how to be firm but gentle.”
Positive Action recognizes the value of each and every person. We help special needs students integrate into mainstream classrooms while equipping them with the essential skills and motivation to thrive.
Positive Action can help you assess your special education students’ needs and plan how to meet them with Individualized Education Plans.
“I am very grateful for these lessons. They fulfill a need that so many children are lacking in the educational process today.” — Linda Davis, 2nd Grade Teacher, Davis Elementary
If you want to see how Positive Action can increase educational success at your institution or organization contact us by phone, chat, or email or schedule a webinar with us below.