Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication. Parents often notice signs during the first three years of their child’s life. These signs often develop gradually, though some autistic children experience regression in their communication and social skills after reaching developmental milestones at a normal pace.
Autism is associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors during pregnancy include certain infections, such as rubella, toxins including valproic acid, alcohol, cocaine, pesticides, fetal growth restriction and autoimmune diseases.
With the ever-growing population of children with autism, all educators must be well-versed in their needs and understand how to interact with them. Using the right tools will make a huge difference in their lives. Here are some steps teachers can take to help them learn, academically and socially:
- 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 Spectrum Disorder (ASD) 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 space, where they can spend time away from any possible distractions.
- Use Visuals
Even individuals with autism can reap benefits from visuals. Visuals can serve as reminders about classroom rules, where certain things go and resources available to students. Using pictures and modelling will mean more to students with autism than a lengthy explanation.
- Be Predictable
If you have 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 stress for students with ASD and will help avoid distraction. Students are less worried or curious about what will happen next and can focus on the work at hand. Give your students a schedule that they can follow. If there are any unpredictable changes, it is a great teaching moment to model how to handle changes appropriately.
- Keep Language Concrete
If you were born in the 90s, you might remember the show Bobby’s World with Howie Mandell. In the show, 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 an excellent opportunity to teach figurative language and hidden meanings in certain terms.
- Keep Voice Low and Clear
Keep your voice low and clear while teaching. Autistic children can become agitated and confused if a speaking voice is too loud. Excess talking between staff members should be kept to a minimum.
- Directly Teach Social Skills
The hidden curriculum may be too hidden for some individuals with autism. Certain things may have to be explicitly taught (like analogies). Model appropriate social skills and discuss how our behavior can make others feel. The book You Are a Social Detective is a great book for kids with ASD as it explains social skills in an easy way to understand.
- Limit Physical Contact
While physical contact might be a good strategy with all children, those with ASD cannot properly interpret body language and touch, so minimal body physical contact might be best.
- Treat Students as Individuals
This goes without saying but it is crucial to model patience, understanding and respect when working in a classroom with special learners. Celebrate their success and don’t sweat it if some accommodations do not conform to what you are used to in the classroom. Keep in mind that some of these recommendations may be very helpful for some students while others may not need the same degree of consideration. Autism can affect individuals differently.
Let us know in the comment section below how you help kids with autism to learn.