Chris Cooper, a fourth-grade teacher at Moorlands Elementary in Kenmore, Washington, says he didn’t have students with autism in his class for the first half of his 22-year career—at least none that he was aware of. But that has changed over the past decade. “It’s not unusual to have one or two kids on the spectrum in a classroom anymore,” he explains. Cooper’s experience reflects wider trends in the diagnosis of autism. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 150 children were identified with the disorder. Today, that number is one in 68—with boys at five times higher risk than girls.
The diagnostic criteria for autism changed in 2013 with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Previously, there were separate diagnoses for autism disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and other pervasive developmental disorders, says Clarissa Willis, associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Indiana and author of Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Today, DSM-5 puts them in all in one category as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“The criteria are much more comprehensive,” explains Willis. “[DSM-5] recognizes that autism is a spectrum. Children are going to have varying degrees of challenges with the common areas considered part of autism, including communication, behavior, social awareness, and sensory integration.” Instead of “pigeonholing” children into subcategories, says Willis, DSM-5 focuses on how much support a child needs.
Willis points out that the push toward inclusive classrooms has also increased the number of children with ASD in the general education setting. “Inclusion only works insofar as the appropriate supports are set up for the child and the teacher,” she says.
Those supports vary from child to child. Some can spend all day in the inclusion classroom, while others can manage just a half-day. Some students may have full-time aides. Others may be able to function with computer assistance, such as apps to help them communicate or learn social skills (see sidebar). And while technology can be a powerful tool, Cooper suggests using it judiciously. “With kids on the spectrum, it shouldn’t be used as a crutch or a babysitter, but it can be used to help facilitate,” he says.
With the guidance of Willis, Cooper, and several other educators trained in autism, we’ve compiled 10 strategies to help you support the varying needs of students on the autism spectrum.
1 | USE VISUALS. Using visuals can help students with ASD in a wide range of areas—from understanding rules to explaining social situations. For instance, Willis has found visual “if/then” cards to be particularly useful to address behavioral issues. Consider a student who loves to be on the computer but doesn’t like to do math. On the “if” side of the card, you would include a picture that represents math. On the “then” side, you would show a computer. “Every time he starts to get off task, the teacher can just point to the card,” Willis says.
2 | STRUCTURE YOUR DAY. Routines are doubly important for students who require a tight structure. In addition to a posted class schedule, students on the spectrum can benefit from a personal daily schedule with built-in visuals.
Willis points out that most children with ASD demonstrate “unbelievable inflexibility” when there are changes to a routine (think assemblies). You can add these deviances into students’ schedules and provide extra transition time.
3 | TELL A SOCIAL STORY. Difficulties with social skills is a hallmark of ASD. Using “social stories,” a technique developed by Carol Gray, president of the Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding, can help guide students through interactions with peers and teach social norms. Willis had a student with autism who would become physical when it was his turn to use the computer and someone else was still on it. She created a story that taught him to ask for a chance to participate without pushing or shoving: “He would say to himself, ‘When someone’s on the computer, I ask them to stop. I count to 10.’ ”
4 | GO BEYOND THE "TEACHER LOOK." You know your disapproving ‘teacher look’ when the class is too loud?” asks Julie Van Alst, a special-needs teacher consultant in the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District in Cadillac, Michigan. “Your student with ASD will likely not understand your look means you want your class to quiet down.” Children with ASD have a difficult time reading nonverbal cues and gestures like facial expressions. Van Alst recommends using direct language to communicate exactly what you want the student to do.
5 | KEEP IT SIMPLE. Following a long set of directions is difficult for most students. It’s especially challenging for a student who struggles with oral language processing, as is the case for many children on the spectrum. Both Cooper and Van Alst say it’s crucial to keep oral directions short and to the point. Cooper uses key words like first and then. Van Alst says she gives only one or two directions at a time.
6 | INTEGRATE SENSORY ACTIVITIES. Most children with ASD are over- or under-reactive to sensory stimuli. Van Alst says the buzzing of fluorescent lights in the classroom or echoes in the cafeteria can be triggers for some students.
“We typically set the lights on halfway,” says Christina Rodocker, an ASD teacher of grades 3–5 at Turtleback Elementary School in San Diego. Some of her students have scheduled sensory breaks every hour or two, which include playing with a stress ball, sitting with a weighted lap pad, chewing gum, or carrying a heavy backpack.
7 | TAKE A BREAK. Willis says that sometimes students just need a quiet place to retreat. “There should be a place in the classroom—not a place for punishment—where a student can go to take a break from the world,” she explains. You can set up a spot in the back of the room with soft lighting for a getaway moment. “The only rule is, after you take a break, you have to finish what you were working on,” adds Willis.
8 | CONSIDER PARENTS THE EXPERTS. As a stepparent of a child on the spectrum, Cooper knows about being on both sides of the teacher–parent relationship. He recommends you say to parents: “You’re the expert. Help me get to know your kid.” Cooper says parents of children on the spectrum can provide valuable insight into a child’s routines, triggers, and the reasons behind behaviors. He collects information in various ways, including surveys.
9 | CREATE A CULTURE OF UNDERSTANDING. Cooper has had honest conversations about autism with all of his students to educate them about the disorder. He has two go-to books he recommends reading to upper-elementary and middle-school students to begin those discussions: Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko, and Colder Than Ice, by David Patneaude. “When you’re reading a particular section where behavior is demonstrated by a character, it’s totally fine to point that out and ask, ‘Why do you think this is?’ ” he says. “It brings it out in the open to have that discussion. Kids are empathetic.”
10 | TREAT THEM AS CHILDREN FIRST. Van Alst says we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that “children with ASD are unique and wonderful individuals. They are first and foremost children.” Treat them as you would any other student—tap into their interests, allow them to showcase skills, support them as needed, and celebrate their successes.
Photo: Jodie Griggs, Flickr Select/Getty Images