15 Activities, Teaching Strategies, and Resources for Teaching Children with Autism

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Because approximately 1 in 59 students are diagnosed with autism, learning how to help students with this disorder in the classroom is so important.[1] Teaching young students with autism communication skills and learning strategies makes it all the more likely that they’ll reach their academic potential later on. And the more you learn about autism spectrum disorder, the better you’ll be able to prepare these students for lifelong success.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that causes hypersensitivity to sights, sounds, and other sensory information. Symptoms of autism generally fall into three categories:[2]

  • Communication issues
  • Social impairment
  • Repetitive behaviors (known among the autism community as “stimming”)

Here are 15 fun activities to help children with autism feel welcome in your class while addressing their symptoms and individual learning styles. Whether you play them one-on-one or as group activities, these are excellent ways to keep students with autism engaged and ready to learn.

Social Skills Activities for Elementary Students with Autism

A common characteristic of students with autism is trouble communicating or connecting with their classmates. Use these social skills activities to teach kids with autism how to recognize social cues, practice empathy, and learn other important life skills.

1. Name Game [3]

This fun group communication activity teaches students with autism an essential skill: how to introduce themselves and learn someone else’s name. To play this game, gather your students in a circle so they can all see each other. Start by pointing at yourself and saying your name (“I am Mr. or Ms. _____.”). Then, ask the child on your right to share their name just like you did and then repeat your name while pointing at you. Have each child take turn saying their name, then pointing at another child in the class and repeating their name.

The Name Game is an especially fun social skills activity for children with autism to do at the beginning of the school year. That way, they’ll be able to learn their classmates’ names and get a head start on making new friends.

Storytime at Nursery2. “How Would It Feel to Be ____?” [4]

Next time you read a book to your class, try asking your students how it would feel to be the main character in the story. If you’re reading a picture book about Cinderella, for example, you could ask how they would feel if they had two evil stepsisters who were mean to them. Or if you’re reading Peter Pan as a class, you could ask them what happy memories they would think about to fly with magic pixie dust.

This can help students with autism learn empathy as well as how to see situations in their lives from another perspective. It can also teach them how to recognize emotional cues by encouraging them to put themselves in the perspective of another person.

3. Sharing Time [5]

Sharing time is a classic elementary school staple, and it can also be a great social-emotional learning (SEL) activity for kids with autism. Every week, have one kid in your class bring something that they’d like to share with the class. This will not only show students with autism how to discuss their interests with others but also how to practice active listening. And if they’re fascinated by something another student brings in (or vice versa), they may even make a friend.

Sensory Activities for Children with Autism

Because children with autism are often hyper aware of sensory input, it’s helpful for educators to provide accommodations so their students can focus in class. These activities involving sensory stimulation can keep kids with autism grounded in the present and comfortable learning with the rest of their classmates.

4. Sorting with Snacks Activity [6]

This tactile activity for children with autism can be a fun way to engage students during math time. Give everyone in your class a food that is easy to sort, like chewy snacks or small crackers. Multicolored snacks are ideal, but you can also use food that comes in different shapes, textures, or sizes.

First, ask them to sort the food by color, shape, or another characteristic. Then, use the snacks to teach students basic math skills like counting, adding, or subtraction. Once they’ve grasped the concept you want to teach, reward your students by letting them eat the snack.

5. Vegetable Paint Stamps [7]

This art activity for children with autism engages touch and sight to keep students focused on their assignment. Before class begins, cut slices of vegetables like potatoes, cucumbers, or peppers. Hand out a few vegetable slices to each child along with a cup of paint. Instruct your students to dip the bottom of the vegetable slice into the paint and then press it against a piece of paper.

As your students use these homemade stamps, they will make vibrant botanical impressions on their paper. From there, your students can either leave them as they are or finger paint to transform them into whimsical artwork.

6. Scientific Slime Experiments

Slime is not only a popular craft for young children but also a great sensory activity for autism in class. There are plenty of simple slime recipes online–look up your favorite and have fun making it with your students. You can use this as a tactile art activity if you’d like or as a science activity for elementary students.

Calming Activities to Prevent Autism Meltdowns in Class

When students with autism are feeling overwhelmed, the intense response that they feel may cause them to lose control of their emotions. This is called an “autism meltdown” and is different from when students without autism act out in class. While the best strategy for autism meltdowns is to seek help from a school specialist, these calm down activities can help to de-escalate stressful situations.

7. Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques are designed to help us focus on the present during stressful situations. Here are a few grounding activities for kids with autism to try if they seem agitated:[8]

  • Count to ten or recite the alphabet as slowly as you can
  • Listen to calming music and pay attention to the different instruments
  • List five different things that you can see around the room
  • Try stretching or simple yoga exercises and focus on how your body feels
  • Hold something tactile like a piece of clay or a stuffed animal

For older students with autism, you could also try mindfulness meditation. This can produce a similar effect and help students tune into the present rather than getting carried away by their emotions.

8. Student Retreat Zone [9]

When a student with autism is overwhelmed, giving them a place where they can relax and take a break from sensory stimulation can sometimes go a long way. Designate a corner of your class as the “Student Retreat Zone” and fill it with sensory toys, picture books, comfortable seats, and calming activities that students with autism could do on their own.

Let every student in your class know that if they feel anxious or stressed, they can always take a few minutes to decompress in the Student Retreat Zone. That way, you don’t have to single your student with autism out but still let them know that it’s an option. If your student with autism seems like they could use some time away from class, you could also ask them if they’d like to read or work on homework in the library for a while.

9. Calm Down Drawer [10]

Tactile toys can help children with autism calm down if they’re agitated since their minds are so attuned to sensory information. If you have children with autism in your class, fill a drawer in your classroom with toys that could help neutralize overwhelming emotions. When your student seems stressed or has trouble focusing, give them a sensory toy or two to help them relax.

Here are a few ideas for sensory toys to put in your “calm down drawer:” [11]

  • Play dough
  • Fidget toys
  • Stress balls
  • Weighted blankets
  • Aromatherapy pillows

Effective Teaching Strategies for Children with Autism

In some cases, the learning characteristics of students with autism may differ from the rest of your class. But luckily, the right teaching strategies and methods can keep children with autism on track to finish the school year strong. Try these tips, educational accommodations, and resources for students with autism to help them learn concepts that might otherwise be difficult for them to grasp.

10. Bring Special Interests Into Lesson Plans [12]

Many children with autism have a fixation on certain topics or activities. Take advantage of what they’re passionate about and use it while teaching students with autism to help them focus in class. If a child with autism loves outer space, for example, you could plan a math assignment about counting the planets in our Solar System.

11. Use Multisensory Learning

Many kids with autism are multisensory thinkers and don’t focus as well when assignments only engage one of their senses. Renowned scientist and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin once said, “I used to think adults spoke a different language. I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me.” [13]

For this reason, lessons that engage several senses like sight, hearing, and touch can make students with autism more responsive in class. You could, for example, teach children with autism how to read with magnet letters or sing a patriotic song to learn about American history.

12. Try a SMART Goal Challenge

If a student with autism is having a hard time with school, sit down with them and pick a SMART goal to work on over the next month or semester. SMART goals are an effective way to help children with autism reach their potential, and they are: [14]

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed-upon
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Suppose, for example, that your student with autism is having trouble learning how to recognize emotions. You could make a goal with them to practice flash cards with emotions on them every day for five minutes and for the student to recognize each card by the end of the month. As long as the SMART goal hits all of the criteria, it can help your student focus on ways to make progress.

Activities for Autism Awareness Month in April

April is Autism Awareness Month, a time when we celebrate neurodiversity and help students with autism feel welcome in private or public schools. Although parents may not want their child’s autism diagnosis to be shared (and you never should without their permission), you can still teach your class about inclusion this month without mentioning a certain student.

Use these three games as autism awareness activities during April or whenever you want to teach a lesson on diversity.

13. “Just Like Me” Activity

For this activity, gather all of your students together on the floor so they can all see each other. Have each child take turns sharing something about themselves, like:

  • “I have a pet dog.”
  • “I can play the piano.”
  • “My birthday is in September.”
  • “I love to play soccer.”
  • “My favorite color is yellow.”

If a statement also applies to other students (like, for example, they also play the piano), instruct them to raise their hands. This will help remind students that they share more similarities than differences with their peers and that they can always find something to talk about.

14. Picture Books About Diversity

By reading a story about inclusiveness to your class, you can help them remember to be kind to everyone and look out for people who are different.

Here are a few picture books about diversity that you can share with your students:

  • The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss
  • I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brian
  • It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
  • Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee
  • The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca

The last book on this list, The Girl Who Thought in Pictures, is about a famous researcher who was diagnosed with autism and has since stood as an activist for people with her condition. It is perfect for helping kids understand autism a little better without calling out a specific student.

15. Apples and Actions Game [15]

This object lesson starts with showing your student an apple. Pass the apple around the class and, as you do, have each child insult it and drop it on their desk or the ground. After every child has dropped it and said a mean thing to it, cut the apple in half and show your students all the bruises inside.

Explain to them that our words have consequences and that everything we say can make an impact on someone else. Just like how insulting and dropping the apple can bruise it, being mean to a classmate can have big effects on them. That way, your students will always remember to be kind.

Sources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.[1]

The National Institute for Mental Health. A Parent’s Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from autism-watch.org: https://www.autism-watch.org/general/nimh.pdf [2]

Shapiro, L.E. 101 Ways to Teach Children Social Skills. The Bureau for At-Risk Youth, 2004.[3]

Dougan, R. Social Emotional Learning Guidebook: Ideas for Incorporating SEL Activities into your Classroom. Retrieved from dvc.edu: https://www.dvc.edu/faculty-staff/pdfs/SEL-Guidebook.pdf.[4]

Shapiro, L.E. 101 Ways to Teach Children Social Skills. The Bureau for At-Risk Youth, 2004.[5]

Autism Parenting Magazine. Sensory Play Ideas and Summer Activities for Kids with Autism. Retrieved from autismparentingmagazine.com: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/best-sensory-play-ideas/.[6]

Autism Speaks. 10 Fun Summer DIY Sensory Games for Kids. Retrieved from autismspeaks.org: https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/10-fun-summer-diy-sensory-games-kids.[7]

Noelke, K. Grounding Worksheet. Retrieved from winona.edu: https://www.winona.edu/resilience/Media/Grounding-Worksheet.pdf.[8]

Tullemans, A. Self-Calming Strategies. Autism Spectrum Disorder News, July 2013, 23.[9]

Ibid.[10]

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.[11]

Larkey, S. Strategies for teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other students with special needs. Learning Links: Helping Kids Learn, 3, pp. 1-5.[12]

Blanc, M. Finding the Words… When They Are Pictures! Helping Your Child Become Verbal! Part 1. Autism/Asperger’s Digest, May-June 2006, pp. 41-44.[13]

Larkey, S. Strategies for teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other students with special needs. Learning Links: Helping Kids Learn, 3, pp. 1-5.[14]

Penn State Extension. More Diversity Activities for Children and Adults. Retrieved from psu.edu: https://extension.psu.edu/more-diversity-activities-for-youth-and-adults.[15]

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