Autism in the Classroom — What Can You Do to Achieve Success?
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Autism affects 1 in 88 children, according to the latest CDC study. That is more than diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Down syndrome combined. That means that you will have a child with autism in your classroom. What can you do to be successful with them?
As the mother of a child with autism and a veteran teacher, I am going to share some things about autism that you may not be aware of. First, autism is not a catchall diagnosis. It is a complex medical diagnosis that is hard to qualify for. While there is no blood test at this point to indicate autism, they are finding that there are irregularities in the way the brain is wired. Which leads me to my second point: It is neurological. For this reason, it has a huge impact on how they perceive and interpret the world around them. What we see as quirky behavior is their way of dealing with the world as THEY perceive it.
The most challenging thing is that not everyone with autism is the same. The spectrum is very complex. Children with autism range from having no verbal skills and being low functioning to having limited verbal skills — to everything across the spectrum. There are high functioning children with no language delays (like Asperger’s) and gifted autistic children with and without language delays. The gifted autistic child is known as “twice exceptional” and has special needs for their autism AND their giftedness. Thus, in order to be an effective teacher, you HAVE to be as knowledgeable as possible about the disorder. You have to read about it, go to workshops, and learn as much as you can. Most importantly, you have to find what works for your student!
Five Pieces of Advice to Help You Have Success With Your Autistic Students
1. Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations
Autistic kids are very rule oriented. They like procedure and need to know exactly what is expected. Visual schedules are great tools to keep them on track no matter what their ability level. Write directions out in a way that they can clearly understand, and let them know that if they meet a small list of expectations, then they can have a brief, agreed-upon reward. For example, if you finish your 20 problems in math, then you can draw for ten minutes. This would be for a child that sees drawing as a reward. Most importantly, keep your directions short. Don’t overwhelm them with too many at one time!
2. Be Aware of Sensory Issues
Autistic kids are strongly impacted by their senses. Imagine trying to go through your day with someone poking you repeatedly. How hard would that be to ignore? Kids with sensory issues have to try to filter out the things that bother them all day, which is no easy feat. You have to be aware of their specific issues. Some issues that may affect them are:
Touch: Either an aversion to touching or a need to touch too hard. Some need deep pressure to calm down, and some can’t stand touch at all. They can also be irritated by clothing tags, tape, band-aids, dirty hands, certain clothing materials, and the feel of their chair.
Smells: You may not smell what they are smelling: they may be hypersensitive to certain smells.
Tastes: You may notice that they tend to have a specific range of foods that they stick to. There are actually therapies that can be done by occupational therapists to help them expand their realm.
Sounds: Loud noises can be EXCRUCIATING to them. My son is almost nine and still cannot tolerate the noise of the vacuum cleaner. We keep headphones for him at all times just in case. Assemblies and sports can be torture.
Space: Some autistic kids feel better if they are up high. They climb on the roofs of their homes, to the top of the swing set, up trees, you name it. Others may be terrified of heights. Some need to feel closed in and feel safer UNDER the desk or sitting in a specific place. Work with them and be aware. They often cannot foresee the danger of hiding when stressed, running away when angry, or climbing everything, inside and out. They do it because they NEED it at the moment as a way to de-escalate some sensation.
Crowds: These can be over-stimulating for many people. Now imagine how overwhelming it can be for someone with autism, who already has the issues above.
Eye Contact: For some kids, eye contact is a form of torture. While YOU may need the eye contact, it may utterly destroy their ability to listen to what you have to say if you are talking to them one on one. You can help them ease into it, but don’t push it if it is upsetting to them.
3. Find What Motivates Them
Use what they love to help inspire them to learn. My son loves music, computer games, science, animals, and drawing. His teachers and I work together to find ways to motivate him through his loves. For instance, he is on the gifted spectrum, but still has some language issues. Thus, I really have to work hard to get him to read. We had to come up with a different set of rules for his Accelerated Reader books. The only way to get him to read is to let him choose books that he is interested in regardless of the AR level, such as the Magic School Bus Series. In addition, we set up rewards at home for good reports from his teacher because he does have to do work that he may not like. We try to work with the teacher to reward the positive and to set up a system that supports his classroom expectations. You have to do what is best for them, and not what is best for everyone else.
4. Be Proactive
Know their triggers. Try to avoid causing a meltdown unless you are trying to work them through an issue (which has to be in SMALL increments). Know what the signs are when their negative behaviors are escalating, and have plans in place for what to do if they occur. If there's a safe place in the room for them to go, where you can still see them, let them go there to calm down before you address an issue. Many problems can be avoided if you just prepare them for what is coming. If it is a change in schedule, explain it to them ahead of time. This will help them cope with the change. Change happens. Help them deal with it, and you will find that it gets easier each time.
5. "I Am a Kid!"
Don’t ever forget that you are dealing with a kid! While they are not average, they do have the same issues that kids have. They WANT to be liked. They just need help with social issues. They WANT to have fun. They want to be included. However, it is hard to fit in when you have trouble with eye contact or you have quirky mannerisms. Try to help them.
However, they are also like every other kid in that they want things their way or may not feel like cooperating. You have to distinguish when their issue is that they are just being a kid and when it is a result of their autism, and deal with it appropriately. Remember that they probably cannot explain very well what the issue is. For instance, they may not feel well or may not understand how to do the work and THAT is why they are digging their heels in. That doesn’t mean they can verbalize that. Start by asking what the problem is. Throw out some possibilities, and then help them work through it.
Autism is so complex, I could write several books about it and still have more to say! My greatest piece of advice is to be patient with them and revel in the successes—no matter how small. They can achieve GREAT things with the right teacher. The key is just being an educated one so that you can help them achieve success!
For more on autism in the classroom, see Addie Albano's post "Autism Awareness Inside and Out of the Classroom."