Reaching Various Exceptionalities: Autism Spectrum

By Scott Sterling

This is the last in a series of posts about actionable strategies that any teacher can use to reach students with varying exceptionalities. This week: students with autism spectrum disorders.

Autism comes in many forms, from mild to severe. General education teachers rarely if ever see students who are severely autistic. But milder forms, including Asperger’s Syndrome, are quite common in the mainstream population. The more we learn about autism, the more students are identified with some of the symptoms.

Because of this, it’s important for all teachers to have a basic understanding of how to make their classrooms more autism-friendly.

More visuals

Students on the spectrum are more sensitive to visual representations. If possible, provide pictures to represent information or allow students to draw instead of write notes. This is doubly important for information that is meant for the student to remember, such as classroom routines and rules.

Limit choices

Teachers try to find ways to give their students more choice in what goes on in the classroom, but choice can actually represent a challenge for a student on the spectrum. They can put themselves in a sort of “thought loop” if given too many choices. This can be as simple as choosing a color to use for an art project or as complex as selecting a topic for a report. When possible, give them two of something to pick from.

Clear and direct rules and procedures

Although your classroom rules and procedures should already be clear and concise, this is even more important for autistics. Again, wiggle room is the enemy here. Routines should be modeled and revisited frequently. If rules and procedures are displayed, make sure they appear in kid-friendly language that leaves no room for interpretation.

Warn before a transition

Consistency is key for students on the spectrum, so they have trouble transitioning from one activity to another if they aren’t given a warning. Established routines can help, but still make it a practice of counting down leading to a transition, such as giving them “5 minute warnings”.

What finished looks like

Autistic students have trouble with the concept of finishing something. They can have a broad interpretation that either leaves tasks half-complete or they never stop working. Make sure you clearly describe what a finished product looks like. If you can, take a picture of a finished task (like a tidy desk) and show them as a comparison.

Link work to a particular interest

Students on the autism spectrum tend to have one or two interests that are paramount to them, to the point of getting close to obsession. If allowed, they will study these interests indefinitely. It might take some creativity, but a great trick to help them get their assigned work done is to tie it to their individual interest(s). For example, if a student is supremely interested in sports and you’re a math teacher, use statistics to bring the subject to life for that student.

Avoid overstimulation

Students on the spectrum tend to be oversensitive to stimuli, especially sounds and lights. If you tend to run a noisy classroom, provide headphones or ear plugs for the autistic student so they can stay on task. Colorful wall displays or posters can also be highly distracting.

Provide alternatives to handwriting

Although typing is becoming the de facto method of recording ideas, school still includes plenty of writing by hand. Autistic students tend to have challenges when it comes to fine motor skills. Make accommodations for those students to type or otherwise represent their ideas.