Those who work in the world of education will most likely at some point have students in their classroom who are on the spectrum. If you end up being one of the few who never does, you’ll still encounter students with autism in the hallway, in the library or gym, and at lunch. Over the past decade, autism has been more easily diagnosed due to the increased general knowledge about the disorder as well as the number of physicians and psychologists who can diagnose patients with ASD at a younger age.
Students on the autism spectrum have a range of abilities, interests, and academic levels. In public schools, there are self-contained ASD teachers who have students who are on different levels and some that are mixed-level classes. Some students with autism are nonverbal and might also have other disabilities such as health impairments or developmental disabilities. Other students with autism are higher-functioning in terms of daily, social, and academic skills, including speech, learn in a small resource classroom with other students who may have or may not have autism. Many students with ASD can also learn in a general education, co-taught setting where a general education and special education teachers teach together and IEP goals and accommodations can be met.
Whether students are self-contained, learning in a small group setting, or are included in the general population, they have the right to access the best education possible with teachers who are empathetic, knowledgeable, and caring. Teachers who have students with ASD in their classroom may need to make use of alternative methods of instruction and learn creative ways to reach them socially, emotionally, and academically.
If you’re currently a teacher or are interested in becoming one, the following are beneficial and important tips for teaching children with autism.
Celebrate Students’ Differences
There are different levels of autism that you may see from student to student, which will be noticeable in the type of autism symptoms they present. This might also depend on what type of class you teach. For example, while some children may be able to speak with little trouble, others may never develop spoken language and will use sign language, visuals, or assistive technology to express themselves. Some children with autism can learn on-grade level curriculum, while others need a modified curriculum or at least many accommodations to learn academic content. Teachers are likely to need to create different methods for helping each of their students, and these methods are generally discovered and developed as instructors get to know them.
It is good to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching students with autism. In addition, your students will have an IEP and more than likely a BIP, which will individualize your approach even more so. All of this means that each of your students with autism will be different from one another––and this isn’t a bad thing.
It is important to celebrate the individual differences among your students!
Allow each student to shine and express themselves. Find out what their interests and abilities are and encourage the expression of those. Get creative and come up with ways to celebrate diversity, individualism, and humanity. Not only will you learn more about your students by doing this, but you’ll create a better rapport and bond.
Find Creative Ways to Encourage Communication
One of the major symptoms of autism is having difficulties with speech and language. Some with autism have quite limited speech skills, while others have an extended vocabulary and can communicate well––it simply depends on various factors.
According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders,
“Many [individuals with autism] have problems with the meaning and rhythm of words and sentences. They also may be unable to understand body language and the meanings of different vocal tones. Taken together, these difficulties affect the ability of children with ASD to interact with others, especially people their own age.”
To ensure that students with ASD can learn and express their needs and wants in the classroom, teachers must try a range of communication methods.
Below are ways in which teachers can encourage communication with even low-functioning students with autism.
- Use basic sign language
- Use a picture-exchange communication system (PECS)
- Use a communication board
- Use assistive technology, such as a speech-generated device
- Use applied behavior analysis strategies, such as functional communication training (FCT)
- Use word games and activities to promote expressive language
While not every single student with autism will receive speech services at school, many of them will. Collaborate with your students’ SLPs to determine how you can reinforce IEP goals and enhance communication in the classroom.
Keep Instructions Simple
Since communication and comprehension can be a hurdle for some students with autism, teachers should strive to make instructions simple. In many cases, breaking a task down into simple steps can help a student understand what they are expected to do. Further, taking things step-by-step can keep children from feeling overwhelmed. When giving instructions, it may be necessary to repeat them, but make sure repetitions are short and identical. Saying the same thing differently can sometimes make it more difficult for children with ASD to understand what they are being told.
If there are instructions that you use regularly, consider making a visual of them to keep in the eyesight of your students, which we will discuss more in the next section.
Take Advantage of Visuals
Because speech and language as well as following multi-step directions and transitioning effectively can be challenging for students with autism, using visuals is beneficial to both student and teacher. Not only are images engaging, but they also help with remembering, prompting, and preparing. Visual supports can include more than pictures; they can include words, lists, objects, drawings, and photographs.
Children who are unable to communicate with words will often use pictures to tell teachers and family members what they are trying to say. Using the same image for the same process, such as showing a child a picture of a bathroom every time a student needs to go, can help cement an image and its meaning in a student’s head.
Daily schedules and social stories can utilize visuals as well. First-then boards and setting parameters around the room are also considered visual supports.
Be sure to use simple images because children may start focusing on the background instead of the main object in a picture. Teachers can find a plethora of pre-made visuals for students with autism online for free or they can make their own. It is also easy to find an example online then individualize it for student and classroom needs.
Let Your Students Show You What They Can Do
While children with autism typically have one or more other disabilities such as a developmental or learning disability, it does not mean that they cannot be successful in a variety of areas.
Students on the spectrum can do a variety of tasks, including complicated ones––they just may take longer than other students to do so. Teachers should set goals for students and focus on getting them to tackle certain tasks on their independent level, such as learning how to tie their shoes or collecting their supplies at the beginning of class. And for those who need some prompting, the goal should be to get them to independence within a certain amount of time.
This is where the ABA strategy task analysis comes into play. Task analysis is the process of breaking down what may be a complicated or complex activity into small, simple steps. When you create a task analysis, make sure it makes sense, it is easy to follow, and monitor how it is going; you can always tweak it if need be.
Here is an example task analysis for washing your hands (include visuals):
- Stand in front of the sink
- Turn the faucet on
- Wet your hands
- Put soap on your hands
- Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds
- Rinse your hands
- Turn the faucet off
- Dry your hands
While it may seem common sense, not all students will follow those steps if the teacher simply says “go wash your hands please.” A task analysis with visuals makes it much easier and allows students to be more independent.
It may be tempting to do everything for a child who is struggling, but it is often better for students to learn to do basic tasks for themselves. It is good to remember that students with autism can learn far more than some people assume when they are given time and the right instructions.
Tips for Teaching Children with Autism: Conclusion
Children with autism may have a disability, but they also have many wonderful abilities. Each individual with autism is different and unique––an entire classroom can’t be grouped together as each student has their own needs. Understanding these needs on a deeper level will help you as a teacher be more successful. If you are currently teaching students with autism or are interested in doing so, brushing up on new and creative ways to encourage communication, social skills, daily living skills, academic learning, and fun is important.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated January 2022