Autism Awareness Inside and Out of the Classroom
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
April marks the beginning of a month-long campaign dedicated to Autism Awareness. Recent studies show that at least 1 in 88 children will be diagnosed within the United States, and unfortunately the number keeps growing. Doubtless, either you or someone close to you knows someone living with autism. This topic is very near and dear to my heart. In addition to teaching a class that includes autistic children, I also have a family member who has autism. Although we only recognize autism awareness for one month, those affected feel its impact each day. If you have autistic students, you will no doubt be challenged, but you also have an opportunity to know very special and unique individuals.
What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder and Asperger syndrome fall under a blanket of terms that relate to impairments with social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive functioning otherwise known as pervasive developmental disorder (pdd). These most often translate to difficulties in the classroom that manifest themselves in the following ways:
- restricted vocabulary
- specific focus on one dominating topic and the inability to transition to another topic with ease
- difficulty using or processing unwritten rules
- inappropriate interrupting
- trouble working within groups and rigid ways of interacting
- unique points of view and perspectives
Reaching and teaching a child with autism is challenging, but here are some rules of thumb that can help you and your student successfully reach goals.
What sets apart students with autism is that there is no universally successful method in regards to teaching. However, it is often suggested that visual aids provide the most impact. Since a majority of autistic students are concrete learners, seeing truly is believing. Begin by asking yourself if the concept you plan to teach can be easily presented in a visual format. Be sure to take into account student abilities and expected responses.
Make Organization a Priority
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for my students is the ability to cope with change, and dealing with the unexpected. I have found that the best way to accommodate their need for stability is to have everything organized. This includes having charts or posters that display daily schedules, activity checklists, calendars, etc., so when a substitute comes in, he or she will have little difficulty following the students' expectations for the day. They can also be used to:
• provide directions or instructions for the student (visual display of classroom assignments, index cards with directions for specific tasks and activities and written instructions for learning new information)
• assist the student in understanding the organization of the environment
• support appropriate behavior (posted rules and consequences)
• teach social skills (visual representations of social scenarios depicting appropriate responses and cues)
It is quite common for students with autism to become frustrated easily if tasks seem out of reach academically, which can then lead to quickly escalating negative behaviors. Keep this in mind when assigning tasks, projects, and homework assignments. Since so much of their lives is under strict control, I try to utilize choice boards or pick-a-topic formats which provide freedom and the ability to practice decision making skills.
Allow for Processing Time
Teachers must remember that autistics interpret information in a completely different way than other students. Therefore, it is important to avoid long periods of classroom lecturing, and instead, break down oral instructions into small steps. It is also essential to give students ample time to process information. In addition, use concrete examples and attach visual representations as much as possible.
Seek Outside Support
Remember that you are never alone. Special education teachers, physical therapists, school counselors, and other paraprofessionals all hold a wealth of knowledge to help you and your student succeed. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance if you need it. Above all, it is imperative to create a strong relationship with parents. No one knows better than they do your student’s strengths and special qualities.
For more information about how you can become an effective educator and advocate for students with Autism visit Autism Speaks. From community walks to support networks, there are many ways to be involved. If you have any experiences that you would like to share, I would love to hear about them!