How to Support a Child with Autism in the Classroom
Today’s emphasis on inclusive special education means nearly 40% of students on the autism spectrum spend at least 80% of their time at school in general education classes.
Keeping special and general education students together as much as possible benefits all of them in short- and long-term ways. It helps reduce the stigma decades of separation created. But it also often leaves teachers with little formal training in meeting special needs wondering, “How can I best support a child with autism in my classroom?”
At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we help special education programs give teachers the knowledge and practical tools they need to support students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
As you’ll see, several of the classroom accommodations for autism we suggest teachers adopt do more than help these specific children achieve and succeed; they can enhance the classroom experience for everyone.
Some basic information about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism spectrum disorder is an “umbrella” diagnosis for persistent deficits in social and emotional reciprocity, verbal and nonverbal communication, and relationship skills. It includes several conditions formerly diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome.
Over the last 20 years, ASD’s estimated prevalence among U.S. children has almost tripled. It’s risen from 1 in 150 to 1 in 54.
This rate may result from an actual rise in cases, greater awareness and detection of ASD, or a combination of the two factors. But there’s no doubt ASD affects millions of kids from all backgrounds. Black and Hispanic children are unfortunately still identified later and receive interventions later than White children.
Symptoms of ASD vary widely: underdeveloped language and social skills, a tendency to experience sensory overload, poorly coordinated motor skills, and more. But so many symptoms hinder the academic and social proficiencies students most need to develop for success.
Seven strategies for supporting students with autism in the classroom
Here are seven support strategies for students with autism proven to help them realize their potential:
- Establish and adhere to a predictable daily routine.
No one likes to be kept guessing about what’s happening next. Students with ASD especially thrive when the classroom day follows a predictable and productive pattern. A regular routine reduces their stress and makes them more receptive to learning.
- Prepare students for unavoidable changes.
Field trips, fire drills, substitute teachers, and shortened schedules due to inclement weather—these and similar deviations from daily routines can upset children with autism. Teachers can use illustrated social stories, pictures or videos, and “change cards” to “prime” students for foreseeable changes, helping them adapt.
- Talk in concrete, concise language.
Figures of speech, abstractions, sarcasm, irony, and other complex uses of language can prove difficult for a child with ASD to comprehend. When teachers keep language simple, specific, and concrete, they stand a better chance of communicating instructions and expectations. Likewise, avoid long, roundabout statements and questions when short, direct ones will do.
- Use visual supports.Visual aids usually prove indispensable when supporting a child with autism in the classroom. Illustrations, photographs, and objects can help students master social skills, follow instructions, communicate their needs and preferences clearly, and track events sequentially. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a formal system of visual aids. In it, nonverbal students give a picture of an item they want to a communication partner in exchange for the item itself. Formal or informal, visual aids’ adaptability make them a “must” in any teacher’s toolkit.
- Proactively try to minimize sensory overload (as appropriate).
Like sensory processing disorder (SPD), ASD can manifest as hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) to stimuli. Teachers can change both their teaching space and their demeanor to reduce the risk of sensory overload. They can keep walls free of cluttered or complicated decoration, and they can provide sunglasses or visors to block fluorescent lighting. They should also always approach students from the front and talk at a low volume. Such accommodations may seem simple, but they can make the classroom far more welcoming to students with autism.
- Provide ways to stimulate sensory responses (as appropriate).
ASD and SPD can also manifest as hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to stimuli. In consultation with occupational therapists, teachers can help sensory-seeking students by letting them use weighted blankets, sit on wiggle cushions, or chew on safe objects. And built-in “brain breaks” for standing up and moving around can help all students—not just those with sensory processing issues—refresh and stay focused!
- Teach to the child’s strengths.
Children on the autism spectrum often demonstrate specialized knowledge about and enthusiasm for topics of interest, exceptional facility with facts and figures, and a refreshing ability to see life from a new, non-judgmental point of view. The more teachers can draw on students’ strong suits, the more likely the students are to succeed. (This strategy, too, can be more than an accommodation for students with disabilities; it can be best practice for teaching all students!)
Discover Other Ways to Make Your Program More Responsive
As this sampling of strategies suggests, training teachers in how to support a child with autism in the classroom isn’t about specialized psychological knowledge; it’s about raising awareness of these students’ situation and showing them simple, straightforward ways to adapt to it.
Yes, supporting students with ASD can take a lot of practice and patience, but it’s also possible for general education classroom teachers to do, too!
PTS offers our clients inservice trainings for teachers. It’s one of many ways we help the programs we work with stay agile.
If you’d like to know more about positioning your program for success, claim your free copy of our eBook, Creating an Agile School-Based Therapy Program: An Administrator’s Guide.