This month is National Autism Awareness Month. In keeping with this observance and with Summit Academy’s mission to create a safe haven for children with learning disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger’s, we present seven tips for supporting learners on the spectrum in the home and the classroom.
1. Be Clear in Your Words
One of the most crucial things to remember about working with ASD students is to ensure you are using clear communication with them. Always keep your language simple and concrete to help get your point across in as few words as possible.
Be direct in your plans for the day and when you are ready to move on to a new lesson and always refer to an ASD student by name, not in the generic “class” moniker. Also, avoid using idioms such as “Put your thinking caps on.” This could leave a student completely mystified and wondering how they could possibly do that.
2. Repeat When Necessary
If you are using clear communication but are still met with a blank stare you may need to rephrase what you’re saying. Asking a student what you just said helps clarify that you’ve been understood.
And be sure to speak in the positive rather than the imperative. “You left a mess by the sink,” is merely a statement of fact to an ASD student. They will not be able to infer what was meant was, “Please rinse out your paint cup and put the paper towels in the trash.” Without factual backup, an assumption is only a guess.
3. Behavior is Communication
All behavior occurs for a reason. But in the case of an ASD student, this behavior may be key to informing what their words can’t express. For example, if a student suddenly needs to run to the bathroom every time they’re asked to do math work, perhaps it is because they don’t know how to solve the problems or are fearful their efforts will not be good enough.
Negative behavior interferes with a student’s learning process. But merely interrupting these behaviors is not enough. Teach them to exchange these behaviors with proper alternatives so that real learning can flow. Encourage them to work through enough repetitions of the task to where they will finally feel competent.
4. Provide Fidget Supports
Oftentimes, ASD students struggle to stay seated or to remain in the classroom for extended periods of time. While allowing learners to move frequently is one way to approach this need, it could ultimately prove distracting to others.
Some students can be equally comforted if they have an object to manipulate during lessons. This could be toys, straws, a string of beads, rubber bands, or even keychains.
Allowing students to draw can be another effective “fidget support.” Many learners with and without identified needs appear better able to concentrate on a lecture or activity when they are given the opportunity to doodle on a notepad, write on their folders, or sketch in a notebook.
5. Avoid Overstimulation
A lot of resistant behaviors in ASD students come from sensory discomfort. These could be triggered by a variety of means; from classroom amenities (such as the flicker of lights or the sound chairs make on the floor) to presentation materials with a strong visual or audio components to the behavior of other students in the room.
Try minimizing or removing (if possible) any distracters you notice negatively affecting a student. In some cases, providing access to an individual work area for students when a task involves concentration may be best.
6. Ease Transitions
For ASD students, it can be a challenge moving from one activity to the next. In planning the day’s lessons and activities, schedule for a pause between tasks to take a break of some kind (walk around, stretch, or simply stop working). These breaks allow for self-regulation before a student becomes overwhelmed with the day’s work.
Consider setting up a quiet, carpeted corner of the room with some pillows, books, and headphones to allow a place for students to re-group when feeling overwhelmed. In some cases, it may be best to give a five-minute warning before an activity changes. Use a simple clock face or timer to give a visual cue for the time of the next transition to help students handle it more independently.
7. Criticize Gently
The maturity and self-confidence required in accepting constructive criticism may be beyond the abilities of an ASD student. Of course this doesn’t mean you should never be critical throughout a student’s education, but it does mean avoiding discipline when a student is angry, distraught, overstimulated, shut down, anxious, or otherwise emotionally unable to interact.
Remember that a student will react as much, if not more, to the qualities of your voice than to the actual words. Speak in low tones and in a supportive, problem-solving way rather than punishing or scolding. Lower your body as well, so that you are communicating on their level rather than towering over them.
Sources include Autism Society of America, Ellen Notbohm, and Teaching Community