30 Things All Teachers Should Know About Autism in School

With education constantly evolving and autism on the rise (autism is said to now affect 1 in 43!), more and more teachers are welcoming students with autism in the classroom. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autistic children are entitled to receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment.  Parents must work with their school district to determine what is appropriate and what makes sense for their child in the classroom. Educators must recognize that they may not be able to teach children with autism the same way they teach neurotypical children. While teaching a child with autism may seem daunting, doing so can often prove to be one of the most rewarding parts of an educator’s career. Here are 30 things all teachers should know about autism in the classroom.

If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.

As the common saying goes, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Teachers need to remember that all autistic children are unique, and what defines one may not define another. While some autistic children are non-verbal, others have an unbelievable talent for things like music and art.

See Also: What are the 10 Most Common Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

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A child with autism can move up the spectrum.

As a teacher, you’ll likely see lots of in-depth and scientific documentation about your student’s autism diagnosis. But remember that a child shouldn’t be labeled as his place on the spectrum. Even a student deemed low functioning can move up the spectrum with proper therapy.

Like all kids, autistic children have strengths and weaknesses.

As is the case with any child in a classroom, those on the autism spectrum have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some may be excellent with memorization but struggle with reading and sounding out words phonetically. Teachers should be prepared for a child to struggle with subjects to varying degrees (or not at all).  Many interventions treat behavior perceived from the outside rather than understanding the meaning behind the behavior.  In actuality, the child may be struggling with a cognitive or sensory issue that needs to be addressed to move past and overcome a weakness or challenge.

Respect the patterns.

Autistic children tend to thrive on repetition and routine. Teachers can help make a student’s educational life as stress-free as possible by understanding the child’s routine and sticking to it as much as possible. Doing so could very well prevent a:

  • tantrum
  • meltdown
  • unnecessary stress

Consider scheduling each classroom day the same way to form your classroom routine. Studies have shown that consistent routine benefits all children, not just those with an autism spectrum disorder.

Be aware of sensory issues — what they are and why they can be a problem.

You probably don’t realize your sensory issues when you have them. If the music is too loud, you turn it down; if you’re too warm, you remove your sweater. But children on the autism spectrum cannot deal with sensory issues like neurotypical people because their senses tend to provide them with unreliable information. Some children are sensitive to students talking too loudly or sitting in an environment that is overly decorated.  Before welcoming an autistic child into the classroom, teachers should become aware of exactly what sensory issues are, and what kinds of sensory issues they are likely to encounter in the classroom.

Get used to the rocking, pacing, and flapping.

Children on the autism spectrum frequently display behaviors known as stimming. These behaviors might include:

  • flapping their hands
  • rocking back and forth
  • spinning
  • pacing

While such stimming behaviors can be distracting to both the teacher and other students, teachers would do well to realize that it is not meant to be disruptive or atypical behavior that must be corrected.  Rather, it’s a repetitive pattern that the child finds comforting.

Provide instructions in as few words as possible.

Autistic kids usually have trouble understanding verbal instructions. When giving directions, use as few words as possible so that the autistic child has less to process. If necessary, give directions to the child with autism separately.

Be prepared to give instructions in multiple ways.

On a similar note, teachers may need to come up with multiple ways to give directions. Providing visual aids and/or writing instructions in a few easy-to-follow steps could prove to be very helpful for an autistic child who has trouble processing verbal directions.

Social situations are difficult for children on the autism spectrum.

Children on the autism spectrum have trouble reading social cues, which could cause confusion and awkwardness among the child and their peers. Teachers can help by paying special attention to their class’s social setting, and modeling proper behavior to all when necessary.

Don’t be afraid to spend time teaching very specific social rules and skills.

If necessary, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to spend time teaching very specific social rules and skills to an autistic student. Examples might include how to wait in line for the slide, how to ask a neighbor for a pencil sharpener, or how to congratulate the winning team after a game of dodgeball.

Don’t take the hurtful words personally.

Autistic children’s behavior may look different than their neurotypical peers. Because children with autism often lack social skills, they sometimes make comments we would consider mean or inappropriate. Teachers should be prepared to be on the receiving end of those hurtful words. Instead of taking the comments personally, teachers should find the strength to lead by example with words of praise and positivity.

Don’t surprise your autistic students with changes.

As previously mentioned, children with autism thrive on routine. A simple change in that routine — even one that might be considered a fun surprise for other children — could be catastrophic. When a change in routine is planned or likely to take place, simply forewarn the autistic student so that she can begin to prepare herself. Examples of change might include:

  • new seating assignments
  • a fire drill
  • a field trip

Autistic children often experience difficulties with motor skills.

It is not uncommon for children with autism to have difficulties with motor skills. Autistic children may benefit from physical therapy to improve coordination or gross motor skills.  Occupational therapy can help children develop the skills they need for fine motor skills like handwriting.  Therapies can be tailored to meet the needs of each student.  For example, autistic high school students may work with an occupational therapist to improve their fine motor coordination so they can gain the skills needed to live independently.  Elementary school children may work with a therapist to develop the fine motor skills they need to work on handwriting or more intricate play.  If therapy services aren’t readily available, it may be beneficial for teachers to consider alternatives to writing by hand, such as an iPad or laptop, for those students in the classroom with autism.

Understand that an autistic person may need extra time to process language.

Perhaps one of the most important things all teachers need to know about autism in school is that children on the autism spectrum need more time to process language. If you receive a blank stare after giving verbal directions, understand that the child is likely still processing. Help him out by repeating the directions with the same words. Changing up the words will only require him to begin his process over again.

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An autistic child has plenty of ideas and opinions, even if he can’t verbalize them.

Some autistic children are non-verbal, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Treat autistic children like they have just as many ideas and opinions as any other student.  You may have to encourage the sharing of those ideas a little differently.

You cannot communicate with a child with autism the way you might another child.

You might communicate with other students using sarcasm, idioms, or a raised voice.  It’s important to understand that these types of things do translate the same to many autistic people. An autistic child also may not understand if you compare him or her to a sibling or another student, or if you bring up events that are unrelated or old. In the best-case scenario, these types of communication are confusing. Worst case, they’re scary.  It is important to speak as straightforwardly as possible and be clear and concise in your communication.

Use positive reinforcement over punishment.

Just as certain methods of communication are not effective when speaking to a child on the autism spectrum, so too is the case with punishment. Children with autism tend to misconstrue negative punishment.  They respond much better to positive reinforcement. Speak with the child’s parents about what methods of punishment and discipline they find most effective.

Use downtime as a positive reinforcer.

As previously mentioned, an autistic child has senses that work overtime which may provide him with untrustworthy information. As you can probably imagine, this is completely exhausting. When an autistic child has met the standards set for her, allow her the reward of downtime. This could be as simple as sitting in the corner with a book and headphones for 10 minutes. Allow the child to relax.

Allow an autistic child time and space to self-regulate.

That time spent in the corner with a book and headphones doesn’t even have to always be a reward. A teacher might find that allowing regular time for the child to decompress makes for a better experience for all.

Students on the autism spectrum have many special interests.

Students on the spectrum usually display special interests (read: obsessions). While teachers do not need to cater to these interests at all times, they can be used as motivational tools for learning. For example, if a child has a strong interest in computers, using computer time as a reward can be very beneficial. When appropriate, teachers may also find it helpful to relate the material being learned back to the child’s interest.

Remain calm during even the “worst” behavior.

It is important to remember that children on the autism spectrum do not melt down to cause a disturbance. Rather, they melt down because all of their senses are in turmoil and it’s the only thing to do. As a teacher, the best thing for you to do is to remain a calming and supportive presence. The world during a meltdown is already terrifying; the child doesn’t need a panicking or angry teacher to add to it.

Speak literally.

Because it takes children on the autism spectrum longer to process things they hear verbally, it is best for them if the teacher speaks literally. Tell the child exactly what you mean, without using similes, metaphors, or idioms.

Avoid even the most common idioms.

Children on the autism spectrum have trouble understanding such common idioms as, “Go on a wild goose chase,” “Give someone the cold shoulder,” or “Get a taste of your own medicine.” Teachers would cause less confusion if they just avoided them.

Present your autistic students with clear choices.

All children, including those with autism, benefit from clear choices. Try not to ask an open-ended question such as: “What activity would you like to play at recess today?” Instead, ask: “Would you rather play Sharks and Minnows or Capture the Flag?” Such clear choices allow for less processing time, fewer arguments, and a greater sense of the classroom as a community.

Use photos and examples of what a finished product looks like.

As previously mentioned, students with autism have trouble understanding anything that is not literal. They also take longer to process information. When starting projects, the teacher may find it helpful to show students an example of a finished product. This provides the students with a clear image of what it is they’re working towards.

Abrupt changes in behavior usually signify anxiety.

Living with an autism spectrum disorder means living with a sensory system that is constantly bombarding you with information that may or may not be accurate. If you happen to notice an abrupt change in behavior in your autistic student, know that it is likely not a case of the student deciding to act naughty for attention or entertainment. Rather, he or she may be experiencing anxiety due to something in the environment.

Be aware that your classroom decor may be overstimulating to a child with autism.

Classrooms these days tend to be busy with colors and textures. While the decor may appear fun to you, lots of bright colors with no place for the eyes to rest could be hard on the sensory system of autistic students in the classroom.  Consider toning down the decor to include:

  • fewer decorations
  • less intense colors
  • a place (perhaps towards the front of the classroom) where a child can rest his or her eyes

You’ll likely find a less stimulating classroom to be beneficial for neurotypical children as well as students with ASD.

Watch over the child during free time and recess.

Like any child, a student on the autism spectrum needs the experience of socialization during free times like lunch and recess. The student, and almost certainly their parents, would appreciate an extra eye kept out to ensure these social times are beneficial and not exceedingly difficult on either the student or his or her peers.

Know that repetitive actions are calming for a child with autism.

We’ve already discussed the habit of “stimming” — repetitive movement such as rocking that a child on the autism spectrum uses to lessen anxiety. But obtaining a sense of calm through repetition isn’t reserved for stimming. Rather, teachers can provide a sense of calm for all students by maintaining a routine (for the day, for switching subjects, for getting ready for lunch, etc.) and sticking to it.

Provide any needed help with organization.

Organization is a skill that should be taught. While many children struggle with remaining neat and organized, teachers may find their autistic students have an especially hard time with this. Teachers can assist by walking through unpacking, transitions, and packing up times until the student has turned these times into routine. Frequent desk checks are also beneficial, as students will then come to know that there is an expectation of keeping their spaces neat.

Love your student with autism like you would love any other child in your classroom.

Finally, children on the autism spectrum are, first and foremost, children. They are likable, funny, and loving, and will capture your heart. Love your autistic students like you would any other child in your classroom.