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10 Characteristics of Great Autism Support Teachers

Those who teach in any sort of capacity deserve not only an award but also a raise! And even more so for teachers and paraprofessionals who work with special needs students, including those with autism. SPED teachers are in the trenches daily handling behaviors, academics, differentiation, many personalities in one room, other staff members, administration, and lots of paperwork, IEP writing, and data collection, all while trying to do things appropriately per county, state, and federal guidance and compliance rules. 

It is a lot! 

Not everyone can handle being a SPED teacher or support staff of students with autism. It can be draining, both emotionally and physically, can test your patience every day, and requires characteristics that honestly not everyone naturally has. 

As the number of students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder increases, teachers and staff who will support them must continue to develop as a professional. Doing so will ensure that they facilitate the most efficient learning environment where their students can thrive.

If you know a SPED teacher who works with students with autism, they more than likely have many of these prized characteristics…

  1. Empathetic
  2. Patient
  3. Knowledgeable
  4. Attentive
  5. Curious
  6. Adaptive
  7. Creative
  8. Organized
  9. Detailed
  10. Positive

10 Characteristics of Great Autism Support Teachers

Empathy

Empathy is a must! Teachers need empathy to fully understand what their students are going through and to even relate to them. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, or try to walk in someone else’s shoes. 

It is crucial that every person working with students who have autism carries a solid dose of empathy. These students are forced to face a lot of unique challenges as they venture into their academic pursuits. The first step towards helping students means that one has to be considerate enough to recognize their struggles. Empathy also accounts for emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Without proper compassion, teachers will not be able to relate to their students. 

A quote on empathy:

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” –Brene Brown

Patience

Patience is a virtue! 

Educating a student that has been diagnosed with autism requires a lot of patience. Since they view the world and some common ideas in a completely different light, learning seemingly simple concepts may be difficult for some. Some diagnoses also make it difficult for the student to follow along the lines of well-mannered communication. Teachers must understand that the autism-affected students seldom, if ever, have the intention to disrespect or undermine their authority. They may simply not understand what types of responses are appropriate or inappropriate in certain scenarios. 

Students with autism need extra assistance with learning social skills, appropriate behaviors, communication, non-verbal communication, academic skills, and much more. SPED and ASD teachers and support staff must be able to practice patience with their students and the students’ families to keep a positive relationship and vibe going on in the classroom. 

A quote on patience: 

“Tolerance and patience should not be read as signs of weakness, they are signs of strength.”

–Anonymous

Knowledge

Staying knowledgeable on diagnoses and disorders that students have in a teacher’s classroom is important. Research and data related to autism continues to evolve; new studies are often being published that shed light onto new techniques and procedures that are beneficial to use as well as new medical information that gets to the heart of what autism is all about.

Consequently, each professional is responsible for staying up-to-date. Not to mention that, according to the National Autism Association (N.A.A.), no two students are the same. Hence why it is labeled as a “spectrum” disorder. Given the wide range of symptoms, teachers must get educated on some of the best ways to approach and study scholars who have the diagnosis.

A quote on knowledge:

“Knowledge is like a garden; if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”

— Proverb

Attentiveness

While constant attention is not something that works well with students who have been diagnosed with autism, teachers must find a way to keep a close eye on them. Some students have extinction as a behavioral intervention, while others have close proximity. But one of the reasons why these students are in a SPED, ASD, or co-taught class is that their needs are not being met in a large, Gen Ed class environment; they need more one-on-one attention along with accommodations and perhaps even modifications. These things cannot be achieved without attentiveness. 

Another important point about attentiveness is that many students with autism are non-verbal or only partially verbal, which means teachers and support staff need to be aware of these students and monitor them much more proactively in order to assist them. 

A quote on attentiveness:

“Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?”

–Stephen Grosz

Curiosity

In the end, if an educator lacks a very high level of curiosity, there is really no way for them to properly handle a student who has been diagnosed with autism. Why is this? Because they will not have an incentive to do additional research, attend extra-curricular training, and try unique strategies. If they are able to maintain a questioning mindset that is completely devoid of any judgment, however, learning how to operate under these conditions could turn into an interesting challenge. Not to mention the incredibly rewarding benefit of being able to help a child who struggles with problems that most folks do not even comprehend.

A quote on curiosity:

“Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” 

–Walt Disney

Adaptive

Adaptability is defined as being able to adjust oneself readily to different conditions. Being adaptable is an excellent skill and quality that makes for an excellent teacher and support staff. Being in the classroom and around and about at school requires being able to adapt to the daily and hourly changes that are bound to happen. Teachers often have to work on the fly, make quick decisions, and react to unpredictable events. They experience things on a daily basis that were not planned and they need to be able to navigate the events successfully If someone is not able to adapt, they will not make it in the world of education. 

A quote on adaptability:

“Things change. The only thing constant is change. It’s up to you to be adaptable.” –Anonymous

Creative 

All teachers need to have at least some creative bones in their bodies. And being in a SPED or ASD classroom requires even more creativity. These teachers need to be able to come up with unique and engaging lessons, differentiate for various needs, find new ways to accommodate students, identify outside-of-the-box solutions for problems, and develop fun projects and activities.

Some people are just not naturally creative, and that’s okay; however, if a teacher is not very creative, it is their responsibility to find resources such as on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers, to improve upon ideas and activities. The internet along with other educators are teachers’ best sources for getting creative. 

There really is no excuse to not have a creative classroom even if creativity is not one of your top characteristics. 

A quote on creativity:

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” 

–Maya Angelou

Organized

Being organized is a must-have characteristic for teachers and support staff, and this is definitely a skill that can be worked on. Not everyone is naturally organized. A teacher may have grown up in a household that did not make organization a priority or simply might not find that to be a priority as an adult. Most teachers will find out quickly that being disorganized is a fast way to make a mess, to get confused, and to lose important items and paperwork. 

A few tips from a seasoned teacher include: find everything a home, use bins, bins, and more bins, organize your cabinets, establish routines for paperwork, and keep a list nearby. 

A quote on organization:

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.”

–Benjamin Franklin

Detailed

Just like with organization, being detail-oriented is a characteristic that will make an efficient and successful ASD teacher. In a SPED classroom, data collection, prompting, and observations require a keen eye; the teacher and support staff must be on top of things basically at all times. Special education data collection and paperwork have legal ramifications and sometimes even IEP meetings can become litigious; the last thing a teacher wants is to get in trouble or possibly lose their certification because they took data incorrectly or missed a goal or objective. Teachers also need to be detailed when writing anecdotal reports, incident reports, and IEPs. The more detail the staff can hone in on, the better. 

A quote on detail:

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

–John Wooden, Basketball Coach

Positive

This world is all about keeping things positive right now. Everywhere you turn out in the community, in the schools, and even on social media, there are inspirational quotes and reminders to stay positive. Being in special education can be so difficult. Teachers often drive home feeling drained and frustrated, and usually not even because of the students. Finding simple ways to stay positive throughout the day is a must.  

Some ideas on how to stay positive are keeping a gratitude journal, change your mindset by practicing positive self-talk, keep positive people close, and start every day on a positive note. 

A quote on positivity

“Optimism is the most important human trait, because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow.”

–Seth Godin

Of course, there are many other characteristics and qualities that make an awesome ASD teacher or ASD support staff. Having some of this is great and making it a priority to work on some of the others you aren’t as effective at is even more so. Continuing to work on yourself as an educator and as a human being will help you in the long run.

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

March 2021

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