Supporting Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder

In my (Clare) course on Current Issues in Teacher Education one of the Image_Karastudents, Kara Dymond, did her final project on autism. She is a member of the Autism Team Program to Assist Social Thinking in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. I learned so much about autism in particular how to help children that I asked Kara if I could post some of suggestions on our blog. I know that teachers would find them useful and teacher educators may want to share them with their student teachers. Thank you Kara for letting me share your work with the wider education community.

An Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism/ASD) is a complex neurological condition which has implications for many aspects of functioning, including learning. The education system needs to be increasingly prepared to meet the diverse needs of these students, as Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States (Safran & Safran, 2001; Sansosti, 2010). Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, as of 2010, rates of ASD were 1 in 68 children. Only ten years before, the prevalence was reported as 1 in 150 children. In this paper, rates from the US are reported, as Canada does not have a comparable federal ASD surveillance system at this time, though one is in development (Health Canada, 2012).

HOW TEACHERS CAN SUPPORT LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM (for high functioning autistic students)

Establish a Rapport

When a teacher has a positive relationship with a child with HFA, it decreases the child’s anxiety and rigidity. It also increases their receptivity to feedback and their willingness to try what is being asked. This is the most important strategy to employ when working with a student with HFA. Some methods to improve your relationship include:

  • Ask them questions about and listen to them talk about their interests
  • Include their interests in word problems, tasks, and books available in the room
  • Have them present as an expert to the class on their interests
  • Reinforce the positive behaviours you see with praise and rewards when possible
  • Use humour with them (but avoid or explain sarcasm, which may be confusing)

Understand Their Need for Safety

  • Make things predictable by having a posted schedule and routines that are consistent
  • When changes happen, explain why they are happening and what is expected, as early in advance as possible
  • Follow up challenging activities with something calming for that student
  • Make your expectations for work and behaviour clear
  • Speak in a calm tone of voice and be consistent with what you say
  • Use clear language or explain language that is complicated or idiomatic

Manage the Environment

  • Help the child to know what they can do if they need a break (e.g. a safe spot to go to for a certain length of time, break options such as getting a drink, pacing in the back of the class, etc.) and what your expectations are regarding when and for how long they can take a break
  • Offer them a quiet place to work, such as a desk carrel, if needed
  • Start the day with a task they like to decrease any anxiety upon arrival, if possible
  • Seat them in an area facing a section of the class with fewer visuals to decrease distraction
  • Seat them with supportive classmates
  • Pay attention to sensory stimuli that distract or agitate them and do what you can to minimize these. Create a plan with the student on what to do if there is a factor (e.g. heat) that you cannot control (e.g. they have permission to go to the bathroom and splash cool water on their face at any point, and they can sit near a window)

See from Their Perspective

  • Monitor their understanding of different situations and relationships
  • When you notice a behaviour or thinking pattern that is different from same-age peers, consider its long-term impact and what skills need to be taught instead
  • Have private check-ins with the child to discuss misunderstandings and help them to see the perspective of others and how their choices can affect how others feel
  • Explain things logically
  • Include them in problem-solving and making a plan for how to cope when they are stressed
  • Recognize that when they are stressed, you will have to reduce your expectations

Be Specific

  • Explain logically and clearly what is expected or not expected
  • Give genuine, specific praise that lets them know what you liked about what they did (they may not know what you are referring to if you simply tell them “good job”. Instead say, “I like how you raised your hand – good job!”)
  • Give specific constructive feedback (e.g. “Please stop tapping your pencil. It is distracting.”) so they know what to do and why
  • If you want to see a skill again, remind them to do it again, before the lesson or activity when they are expected to exhibit the skill

Explicitly Teach Their Areas of Need

  • Point out the hidden curriculum when you notice they do not know it.
  • Consider teaching them about the hidden curriculum of tests. This includes what concepts are most important; how to tell what questions require a more in-depth answer (e.g. how much space is there to write in and how many points is the answer worth); how to determine what a question is really asking (e.g. short-answer questions beginning with “What is …” often mean “Tell me everything you know about…”)
  • Draw their attention to intentions and feelings of others – both students and characters in books. (e.g. “How does that character feel when…” and “how do you know?”)

Structure Opportunities for Interaction

  • Help send them out to recess with a plan of what to do and who to play with
  • Engage peers to invite them to talk or play a game they like at certain recesses
  • Teach recess games at gym time so they know the rules and can practice
  • For longer recesses, consider having them be office monitors or library assistants with other peers
  • Highlight their strengths in front of peers and in group projects

Re-Conceptualize Challenging Behaviours

  • Try to understand why a child might be feeling overwhelmed
  • Remember that behaviours signal a lack of skills and can improve with teaching
  • Prevention is key. Recognize you may have to change your approach or things in the environment to set the child up for success next time
  • Anxiety is like a teeter-totter. Your reaction can either bring them gently down or send them flying into a meltdown or complete withdrawal
  • Know your student. Learn their body language so you know when they are in the early stages of frustration and you can prompt them to take a break or reduce task demands
  • Always de-brief after a challenging moment, once the child is calm (this may be the next day). Find out what was upsetting them – they may share important insights that can help you create a plan for next time
  • Stop talking. Children with HFA cannot process language when they are upset

Teach Them Organizational Skills

  • Provide time each day or week to clean their desk and describe your expectations
  • If packing up is problematic, have them pack up what is needed from the morning before lunch and what is needed from the afternoon at the end of the day
  • Instead of the agenda, create a daily homework checklist where subjects are prewritten and materials needed for home can be circled. The only writing needed will be page numbers and questions required
  • Instead of numerous duotangs and notebooks, provide students with a binder for all subjects, divided by subject, and with pockets for loose sheets to be filed later. This may improve students’ ability to locate what is needed and to be ready for each lesson
  • Take and print small photos of subject materials (e.g. textbooks, notebooks) and put them up on the board as a visual reference for what is needed for that subject

Increase Their Productivity & Output

  • Whenever possible, reduce the writing requirement as writing can be laborious for students with HFA. Use visual organizers, fill-in-the-blanks, true or false, or circle the correct answer
  • Task instructions should be given one by one, with exemplars if possible
  • For large tasks, give students with HFA broken-down components of a task to do one at a time. Sometimes too much work on one page can seem overwhelming
  • Change how work or tests look on the page by increasing the font, reducing the number of questions, and having more space on the page
  • Giving some options can help with open-ended tasks (but not too many options!)
  • Give time countdowns so students know when they are expected to transition to another task. This can be difficult for students with HFA
  • Give processing time. Ask a question once and wait. You may have to ask again in a different way. Too much talking might mean they have to re-start their thinking process all over again. (Too many prompts can also be frustrating for a child who is trying to process the first instruction you gave)
  • Consider alternative ways of expressing knowledge. Most students with HFA are visual thinkers, so can express their knowledge better in comic strips than orally or in writing
  • Consider allowing them to type
  • Consider a break schedule to increase motivation and productivity
  • Harness their interests, especially if they are going to elect to do them anyway. If it is a half-hour work period and you know they tend to only be productive for ten minutes and then get distracted by doodling or reading their favourite book, give them a special interest break when they are at their productivity limit. Pair it with praise and tell them they have earned five minutes of their interest for working so hard. Breaks help to free up working memory and re-focus the child, and giving them a special interest break (rather than taking it away) builds your relationship. After their time is up, ask them to get back to work
  • Consider providing breaks during tests. More time does not help without giving breaks to free up working memory
  • Implement a reward system if they are still struggling to meet your expectations. They may need motivation to attempt something that is very difficult for them (your school board’s Autism Support Team can help you to design a successful model)

Respect, Support, & Develop Their Independence

  • Give students help when they need it, but also give them time and space to try work on their own. Give an instruction and then circulate around the room, returning later to see what they can do independently
  • Gradually increase in your expectations for their independence
  • Reward trying to do something that is hard for them
  • Encourage them to take on positions of responsibility in the classroom and around the school (but do not surprise them with this – ask in advance what they would like to do from a list of options)

1 thought on “Supporting Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder

  1. Thank you very much Clare and Kara for sharing this. These are practical strategies that are so very useful for students on the spectrum.

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