According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Odds are that whether you teach special or general education, you will have an autistic student in your classroom at some point. While these students come with particular challenges, a few adaptations and instructional strategies can increase their chances of success and allow you to experience the rewards of teaching students with autism. Here’s an overview of what to expect when you have an autistic student in your classroom.
More planning than you might be accustomed to
If you have been teaching for several years, you probably know your lesson plans backwards and forwards and you don’t require nearly as much preparation for your classes as you did in your first year of teaching. Teaching students with autism will almost certainly require you to alter many aspects of your lessons, presentations and instructional methods. Since most autism support teachers are required to have a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education with an autism concentration, they can be an excellent resource for ways to incorporate more visual elements into your lessons and more opportunities for hands-on learning.
Communicating in ways that may not come naturally to you
One of the first things that students earning an M.Ed. in Special Education learn about students with autism spectrum disorders is that they are concrete thinkers and communicators. If you have a dry wit or an affinity for illustrating your point with metaphor or analogy, you may find it lost on your autistic students. Idioms and sarcasm also confuse autistic students. It is best to keep your communication as simple and direct as possible, using short sentences and repetition to ensure clarity. You may also want to pause briefly between thoughts to allow autistic students to process what they hear. Whenever possible, provide them with written instructions to help them visualize the words they need to understand.
Paying attention to details you may never have noticed before
Since autism spectrum disorders involve difficulty processing sensory stimuli, you may find your autistic students overwhelmed by the intensity of the fluorescent lights or the din of chatting students. They may complain of a strange smell in the room that no one else notices, or the room may be too cool or too hot for them when the other students are comfortable. Students with autism can be easily distracted by visual or auditory stimuli, so they may require breaks to process these stimuli and adjust their tolerance. You may need to provide limited options and avoid asking open-ended questions. ASD students also may have difficulty communicating with words and have a tendency to communicate through their behavior. In a sense, you may have to learn their language so you can help them manage their challenges in the classroom appropriately.
Structure, structure and more structure
Teaching students with autism entails understanding and working with their need for structure. While all classrooms require some structure, giving autistic students a very clear idea of what to expect may reduce their anxiety significantly and create an environment in which they feel safe and comfortable. In fact, most M.Ed. in Special Education programs that offer concentrations in autism teach a preemptive approach to behavior management and modification. The approach emphasizes structure and routine to minimize anxiety and triggers that may lead to outbursts while the autistic learner tries to manage his or her emotions due to an unexpected change in the sequence of tasks or events.
Showing and telling
Autistic students are visual learners, so they may have a difficult time processing detailed verbal instructions or information. When you need to help them understand a process, providing a visual component can be very beneficial.
Teaching students with autism, with or without an M.Ed. in Special Education, can be a thoroughly rewarding experience. While these students have limitations, they are often incredibly gifted in many areas. You should not make the mistake of defining them by their diagnosis. It’s only part of who they are; it doesn’t define them. If you set high expectations, your autistic students may surprise you by working diligently to exceed them. The key for an educator is to recognize what they cannot do while focusing on what they can.