The World Needs all Kinds of Minds!
– Temple Grandin
Each year on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, iconic buildings across Australia and the world turn their lights blue to promote autism awareness for the whole month of April. The awareness of autism spectrum disorder is continuing to increase and support networks are in place for people who have been diagnosed and their families. However, as a teacher, finding out you have a child with autism in your class for the first time can be a daunting thought. Yes, it can be a challenging situation. However, it is also one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences you will have as a teacher, nurturing and inspiring a child with autism in your classroom.
Having taught many young children who are on the autism spectrum, I am certainly not claiming to have all of the answers, nor am I an expert in the field. I have simply gathered together some information which I feel would be valuable to any teacher who may be teaching a child with autism. All of the suggestions and tips that I have provided in this blog have been successful for me as a teacher. Please be mindful that each and every child with autism has their own unique challenges.
What is Autism?
When children have autism, it means that the way their brain interprets and communicates is affected. Every child on the spectrum has unique abilities, symptoms and challenges. This is why the word ‘spectrum’ is used. There are however, a number of common behaviors and challenges that are noticed within the classroom environment. Children with autism struggle with interacting and communicating socially with others. Temple Grandin has autism. She describes how difficult it was for her to talk to other people. “I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out, so I would just scream.”
Sensitivity to the environment around them is another common symptom. Each sense can be either over sensitive or under sensitive and this can change daily or throughout the day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to loud noises, bright lights or unexpected touch. They may seek sensations such as touching or mouthing objects or body-rocking. They may also engage in repetitive behaviors and have difficulty coping with changes to routines or activities.
Autism in the Classroom
It is important to realise, like any other student in your class, each student with autism is different from the other. Each student has their own way of seeing the world, which makes each student with autism unique. This means that, just because strategies that have been used in the classroom have worked for other children with autism, they may not work for the next child who is in your classroom who has autism. Using Sue Larkey and Dean Beadle’s work and a variety of sources, we have put together a list of tips/ideas to help you create a supportive learning environment for children with autism.
Get to know the child
Chat with past teachers, parents and other support staff about the child. Find out special interests and obsessions, as this can be a valuable teaching tool.
Routines and schedules
Creating predictable routines in the classroom gives students confidence, independence and reduces anxiety. Using our visual schedules can also assist with successful transitions between activities. Visual schedules can assist in decreasing transition time and challenging behaviors during transitions. Consider using a sand timer to give a time warning.
Use visual supports
Research shows that children with autism have visual strengths. Use visual strategies to improve their understanding and positive interactions with learning. Where possible, include visual images when teaching different concepts.
Social skills and educating others
Children with autism need support in social situations. Creating such opportunities will help interaction. For example, provide an organized environment during lunchtime with a small group of children who are provided with a structured activity. Teach specific social rules and skills, such as turn-taking and personal space.
Educating others in the classroom about the challenges a student faces with autism will help develop awareness, acceptance, tolerance and friendships.
Communication is crucial
Many children with autism find it difficult to pay attention and follow whole class instructions. Keep language simple and concrete. Get your point across in as few words as possible. Repeat instructions, addressing the child by their name and check for understanding. Most importantly, give positive feedback when they respond.
Gain knowledge of the child and information on what may upset them. Having a handful of strategies to calm the child down, as their behavior is escalating is important. Talk to family, carers and past teachers to find out which strategies worked for them. Children with autism often seek sensory activities such as chewing, twirling or rocking to help calm their anxiety. Using a sensory toy can dramatically improve learning and behavior.
Achievable goals, feedback and rewards
It is important to give a student with autism achievable goals to work towards. Ensure there is one familiar aspect to reduce stress. Celebrate even the smallest of successes. Choose rewards that are functional, concrete and capable of immediate sensory feedback. Compile a list of rewards – you may be surprised what motivates a child with autism. Using our Brain Break Activities or Classroom Reward Cards are nice rewards and provide important breaks for children with autism.
By reducing choices, you will find students with autism engage more quickly in activities. For example, if a student is told to choose a book from the shelf to read, they may find that overwhelming. If instead, you have two books to choose from, they are more likely to engage in reading.
We have a collection of teaching resources designed to help you support and nurture students with Autism.
With thanks to the amazing resources listed below that we used for inspiration while writing this blog:
- Dean Beadle – https://deanbeadle.wordpress.com/
- Sue Larkey – http://suelarkey.com.au/
- Autism Queensland – https://autismqld.com.au/
- Autism Spectrum Australia – https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/
- Go Blue for Autism – http://www.goblueforautism.com.au/
- Strategies for teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other students with special needs – Learning Links – www.learninglinks.org.au