Working with children with autism can be challenging and also quite rewarding. Each and every day poses a new adventure in learning as well as in behavior. Teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents who work with children with autism need to be prepared with a toolbox of strategies and techniques to not only make their lives easier but to help their children be successful and gain the intervention they deserve.
There are 10 behavioral strategies that are super easy to implement with children with autism, in the classroom and even at home.
Continue reading to learn about the following…
- Teach time management
- Set realistic expectations
- Reinforce positive behaviors
- Give choices for non-preferred activities
- Use visuals and social stories
- Teach coping skills and calming strategies
- Practice transitions
- Be consistent each day
- Consider sensory needs
- Teach self-monitoring and emotion regulation
1. Teach Time Management
Children with autism often have a difficult time managing their time, such as understanding how long it takes to complete an activity. An example of this is a teacher allowing ten minutes for playtime until the next activity begins. If the child is unaware of exactly how much time they have left, playtime may end quite abruptly and cause them to react negatively. Using a sand timer or a visual clock timer will help teachers easily communicate how much time is left for certain activities. Being proactive with timers and reminders with students with autism will help reduce problem behaviors while also teaching the students how to self-manage time and to think ahead about transitions.
2. Set Realistic Expectations
All children benefit from rules, procedures, and expectations, and children with autism do so even more due to their disability and the fact that they need more structure and consistency than the average child. Setting realistic expectations means taking the whole child into consideration and determining personalized procedures and rules based upon that particular student’s needs. Not every child is the same; symptoms of autism are on a spectrum, which means the needs will be different for each child.
Here are 4 tips on setting realistic expectations from Autism Classroom Resources:
- Make them positive
- Have students help with creating them
- Create expectations for each environment/activity
- Tie expectations to a reinforcement system
An example of a realistic expectation for an elementary student who roams the classroom when they enter the class.
*I will come into my class, put my bag on my hook, and sit at my desk with my feet on the ground until my teacher asks me to get my breakfast.
3. Reinforce Positive Behaviors
Just like it is important for behavioral expectations to be made clear to the children in a classroom, it is also just as important to positively reinforce appropriate behaviors, such as following expectations. It can be beneficial for children with autism to be aware of what they are working toward, such as 5 free minutes on a computer game, extra recess time, or a piece of chocolate. Children can also have a say in what they are working toward; this will ensure that the reinforcement will actually be reinforcing. For example, giving free time on a computer to a student who cares nothing about technology and would rather go swing on the swingset outside, will be less motivated to comply if they know they are going to earn something they aren’t interested in.
A few important things to consider when choosing and providing reinforcements to children with autism are…
- Get with the child and do a reinforcement inventory to determine likes and dislikes.
- Before each activity, help the child decide what they are working toward.
- Place a visual near the child to remind them of what they are working toward.
- Be consistent; if the child follows through with the expectations, they must be given the reinforcement.
- If a reinforcer no longer works, try something else!
Using positive reinforcement is an excellent and simple way to modify behavior…use it to your advantage at home and in the classroom with your children with autism.
4. Give Choices For Non-Preferred Activities
It is important for any child to have a sense of control. By giving children simple choices to make, it allows them to feel included and empowered. Be sure to give very specific choices as children with autism may be overwhelmed by too many options. For example, asking them if they’d prefer orange juice over grape juice or if they’d like to play a game over watching a movie should be fine. If a child has difficulties with language, be sure to have visuals of the options so that they can select by themself.
Choice-making can be used throughout the day, from what activity to start with, what type of reinforcer to work toward, or if they prefer writing or verbally stating their answer. The easiest way to use choices with children with autism is by using a visual choice board that shows pre-selected options for the situation and have the student point to or say which option that they would like.
Overall, allowing children to make choices at school and at home benefits everyone involved and helps with motivation and compliance.
5. Use Visuals and Social Stories
A choice board is an excellent example of a visual. Many children with autism need visual reminders, prompts, and social stories throughout the day to stay on task and be successful. Using a variety of visuals in the form of pictures, flip charts, posters, and cards help support students’ needs. They are used to prepare students for transitions, to help make choices, to give them answer options to questions, etc.
Social stories, in particular, are used to prepare children with autism for upcoming events or for transitions. Some stories are only simple sentences while others incorporate many visuals for non-readers. An example of a situation in which a student might need a social story is if little Johnny often has problem behaviors right before it is time to get on the school bus at the end of the day. His teacher creates a social story with visuals to read with him once he cleans his area up for the day and is waiting for his bus to be called. It consists of four simple sentences and describes why it is important for Johnny to get on the bus and the steps he must take to make it there. Johnny and his teacher will continue to read his social story each day, then periodically after once problem behaviors have ceased.
There are so many pre-made social stories online for all sorts of situations and the site Your Therapy Source guides individuals through making their own from scratch.
6. Teach Coping Skills and Calming Strategies
Children with autism absolutely need to be taught coping skills and calming strategies for when they are feeling frustrated, anxious, or are having sensory overload. For lower-level ASD students, they may need assistance with using these strategies and won’t be able to do them independently. It is not uncommon for children with autism to seem anxious, fidget, or even have a meltdown. Providing physical and emotional tools to help calm the body and mind are important during times of stress or sensory overload.
Examples of these include providing a weighted blanket, a bouncy seat, a fidget or other sensory toy to play with, turning the lights down, playing soft music, giving noise-cancelling headphones to wear, allowing the student to use a sensory room or go to a calm space in the classroom, practicing deep breathing and stretching, counting backward, tapping, etc. Each child will have his or her own preferences and what is used will also depend upon the situation. A SPED teacher and a parent of a child with autism should have a “toolbox” full of calming strategies handy.
7. Practice Transitions
Children with autism often have a difficult time transitioning from one place or activity to another. This is because some individuals with autism have rigid thinking, have a hard time with multi-step directions, and have cognitive challenges that help them to do certain things independently and with ease. Executive functioning is necessary during the shift between one activity to the next and a lot is going on in the brain during this time. Teachers and parents can practice transitioning with children with autism in unique ways so that they are more prepared and able to cope with the frequent changes.
An article in Psychology Today shares five strategies that can be used to help children with autism handle transitions well are:
- Give advance notice before a transition is going to occur
- Use visual supports
- Use structure and consistency
- Use reduced language
- Provide light praise for good transitions
Being proactive when dealing with transitions and explicitly practicing them with children with autism will help things go much more smoothly.
8. Be Consistent Each Day
Consistency is key! Children with autism thrive on steady patterns and a reliable schedule. Changing up their routines throughout the day, from day to day, is not advised. Giving a child with autism a visual schedule for their day and sticking to the plan can assist them in being more independent, in preparing for transitions and what is coming up next in their day, and helps lessen anxiety and worry. Children on the spectrum tend to prefer rules and routine over spontaneity and going with the flow. Teachers and parents of these children will learn quickly that being inconsistent is not what is best. Of course, things happen that are out of their control; in those instances, it is always good to know what the calming strategies are and also what Plan B is going to be.
9. Consider Sensory Needs
There are various reasons why a child with autism might have sensory issues. They may be sensitive to light or sounds, they might have sensitive skin and have a strong preference for only soft fabrics without tags, they might not like other children in close proximity to them, or they might have dislikes such as a classroom door being open or walking down the hallway with other classes about.
While sometimes adults might want to minimize the exposure that their children have to their sensory triggers, some may actually want to do the opposite and expose them to these things in order to train them to accept them. For instance, if a student becomes aggressive when s/he hears another person cry (at school, home, and community), that problematic behavior needs to be addressed, as hearing someone cry is something that could happen at any moment, in any environment, and is not something anyone can control.
Despite those situations, children with autism should be provided sensory needs in order to help them cope with their environments.
10. Teach Self-Monitoring and Emotion Regulation
Lastly, self-monitoring physical emotions and being able to regulate those emotions is an important skill for children with autism to learn. Even some children who are non-verbal are able to show how they feel in one way or another and express their needs. Children in the school and in the home can be taught how to monitor their own behavior and emotions. This is easily done by making a chart or visual of some sort. In the classroom, for instance, a student with autism can point to a picture with an angry face if they are upset or flip over a red card to signal they need a break. Using tally charts, schedules, and pictures are common ways to help children become more independent in monitoring their behaviors and feelings.
Learning about and understanding these 10 behavior strategies for children with autism is the first step all teachers and parents who work with this population should take. Implementing them is actually the easy part. These strategies do not require much effort and they are typically things that parents and teachers do anyway and don’t even realize that they are implementing a legit ABA behavioral strategy. The main things to remember are to be consistent, implement them correctly, and if something isn’t working, try something else or tweak how you are doing things. Working with children who have autism while modifying behaviors has a lot to do with trial and error. You have to continue trying strategies to see what works best for each individual child, as no child is alike.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University