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6 Tips for Teaching Students With Autism

With a growing number of children who have autism in school, here are some steps teachers can take to help them learn, academically and socially

By Liz Manolis

March 15, 2016

I remember pretty vividly the blank faces I would encounter when I was a kid and told people I had a family member with autism. This seemly changed overnight around the time I entered undergrad to embark on a career in special education. In the past decade or so, there’s been much more exposure and awareness of autism and its uniqueness. With the ever-growing population of children with autism, it's so important that all educators are well-versed on their needs. Here are six tips to help your students with autism thrive in the classroom.

Avoid sensory overload. Many unexpected things can be distracting to students with autism. Fluorescent lights, smells, and noises from other students can make it difficult for students with autism to concentrate. Using cool, calm colors in the classroom can help create a more relaxing atmosphere. Avoid covering the walls with too many posters or other things to look at. Some students may even benefit from their own center, where they can spend time away from any possible distractions.

Use visuals. Even individuals with autism who can read benefit from visuals. Visuals can serve as reminders about classroom rules, where certain things go, and resources that are available to students. Using pictures and modeling will mean more to students with autism than a lengthy explanation.

Be predictable. If you've ever been a substitute teacher, you know about the unspoken anxiety of being with a different class (sometimes in a different school) every day.  Having predictability in the classroom eases anxiety for students with autism and will help avoid distraction. Students are less worried or curious about what will happen next and can better focus on the work at hand. Give your student a schedule that they can follow. If there are any unpredictable changes, it’s a great teaching moment to model how to handle changes appropriately.

Keep language concrete. Do any of you children of the 90’s remember the show “Bobby’s World” with Howie Mandell?  Bobby would always overhear adults using figurative language and daydream of all these crazy scenarios about what he thought they meant. Many individuals with autism have trouble understanding figurative language and interpret it in very concrete terms. This may serve as a great opportunity to teach figurative language and hidden meanings in certain terms.

Directly teach social skills. The hidden curriculum may be too hidden for some individuals with autism. There are certain things that may have to be explicitly taught (like analogies). Model appropriate social skills and discuss how our behavior can make others feel.  Social Thinking is a great curriculum with pictures books such as You Are a Social Detective that explain social skills in an easy to understand way.

Treat students as individuals. I’m sure this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it: It’s so important to model patience, understanding, and respect when working in a classroom with any special learners. Celebrate their success and don’t sweat it if some accommodations don’t conform to what you are used to in the classroom. Keep in mind that some of these recommendations may be super helpful for some students, while others may not need the same degree of consideration. Autism can affect individuals differently.

To learn more about working with students with autism, visit The Autism Vault.