Teaching Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Tips, Resources, and Information On Supporting Students with Autism

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Even if you don’t have a child with autism in your class this year, you will probably teach one at some point. Autism is seen in around 1 in 59 children, a figure that has risen as clinicians have gotten better at recognizing autistic symptoms.[1] Supporting children with autism can make a world of difference in their lives, which is why it’s important for educators to accommodate these students as needed.

Want to better understand and support students with autism at your school? Read on to learn more about what autism is, which challenges students with autism face, and a few tips and lesson ideas for helping them make the most with their education.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The definition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes children to be hypersensitive to sensory stimuli. We use the term “spectrum disorder” because characteristics of autism vary depending on the child and can range from mild to severe.[2] That being said, students with autism often have trouble communicating with others and exhibit repetitive behavior.

A few common signs of autism spectrum disorder include: [3]

  • Has trouble talking or making eye contact
  • Seems to prefer playing alone and is often “in their own world”
  • Shows unusual attachments to certain objects or activities
  • Struggles in social interactions with other students
  • Appears overly sensitive to noises or images

While it’s not certain what causes autism in children, the strongest factor seems to be genetics. A study involving forty-three pairs of twins found that genes can highly predict a person’s likelihood of having autism.[4] While some environmental factors seem to increase the chance that a child develops autism, one thing is certain–researchers have not found evidence that vaccines are one of these factors.[5]

When working with students with autism, schedule a meeting with the child’s parents or a school specialist at the beginning of the year. That way, you can get a sense of your student’s personal needs and how you can best help. Try not to assume which symptoms a child has or try to self-diagnose a student with autism. When in doubt, the best person to discuss any questions with is always their parent or guardian.

What Challenges Do Students with ASD Experience in School?

While teachers often ask if autism is a learning disability, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Autism itself isn’t a learning disability, but there are some learning difficulties associated with autism. For example, students diagnosed with autism are more likely to develop attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.[6] When teaching students with ASD, it’s helpful to watch for symptoms of learning disorders and refer them to a specialist if needed.

Children with autism are also more likely to develop emotional disorders due to the unique challenges they face. Without support in the classroom, these students are more likely to feel isolated or misunderstood. At least one in three people with autism with develop mental health issues like depression or anxiety in their lives.[7] And since the risk of self-harm behaviors is 28 times more likely for children with autism, making sure your students receive the emotional support they need is essential.[8]

Another issue many students with autism face is bullying. Around 34% of children with autism report being picked on at school to the point that it distresses them.[9] Because these kids may think or act differently from others, other students may tease them or leave them out of their friend circles. That’s why it’s important to educate all children in your school about autism, not just the student with ASD.

If these issues aren’t resolved early on, they can affect students on the autism spectrum through their entire educational career. Children with autism are less likely to pursue employment or college after high school, in part because of these difficulties.[10] Luckily, teaching students with autism strategies to overcome their personal challenges can help them reach their potential.

Why Autism Awareness Month? Dispelling Myths About Autism

Every year in April, we celebrate Autism Awareness Month to shed light on misconceptions about autism and help students with ASD find the support they need. Here are a few myths along with the real facts to help you understand more about your students with autism.

“All children with autism have intellectual disabilities.”

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it comes in a broad range of symptoms and severity.[11] In terms of how autism affects learning in school, some students may have cognitive disabilities while others might not. The best way to know for sure is to discuss their symptoms with their parents or a school specialist.

“Only boys can develop autism. Girls with autism are rare or nonexistent.”

While it’s true that boys are more likely to develop autism, girls can have this condition, too. The ratio of boys to girls with autism is estimated at around 3:1, but girls with ASD are less likely to be formally diagnosed.[12] Some researchers have theorized that autism symptoms can be different in men and women, causing girls with ASD to be misdiagnosed or underreported.[13]

kindergarten children playing with toys

“Students with autism cannot make friends or feel emotions.”

Children with autism feel emotions just like everybody else, even if they show it in different ways.[14] Most students with autism want friends, but if they struggle with social skills, they might not know how.

Luckily, teaching students with autism key social skills can help them bond with their classmates. If a child has trouble fitting in, try playing autism awareness activities or teaching a lesson about diversity with your whole class to help all of your students feel welcome.

“Autism can be cured.”

Since autism is a neurological disorder, symptoms can be alleviated but not “cured” entirely. But while children with autism might struggle with some things, they’re just as capable of growth as other students. Finding activities and learning strategies that address their challenges can help them turn their weaknesses into strengths.

“Children with autism will never achieve as much as their peers.”

Students with autism have so much potential, and some of the brightest minds in the world have been people with autism spectrum disorder, including:

  • Charles Darwin
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Michelangelo
  • Temple Grandin
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Beloved poets, talented musicians and artists, and scientists who shaped how we see the world today have been included on lists of famous people with autism. Our communities would not be the same without people on the autism spectrum. While students with autism may have different weaknesses than their classmates, they often have plenty of strengths, too.

Fun Classroom Activities for Teaching Students with Autism

Sometimes, educational strategies for autism may differ from the lesson plans you make for the rest of your class. But thankfully, autism activities can be as simple as stocking sensory toys in your classroom or reading picture books about social skills. Use these four activities for students with autism to help these students learn academic concepts.

Sensory Activities

Because children with autism are sensitive to sensory input, activities that involve their five senses can help ground them in the present.[15] If a child with ASD is having a hard time focus in class, try giving them a special sensory toy to play with. If possible, try to work the sensory item into their assignment.

Here are a few examples of sensory items you could use to help with autism symptoms:

  • Stress ball
  • Finger paint
  • Clay or play-dough
  • Fidget toys
  • Chewing gum

Exercise Games

Studies show that regular exercise can help alleviate symptoms of autism and improve social skills.[16] Try planning outdoor activities that get your students moving and tie into your lesson plans. You could, for example, play hopscotch to teach kindergarteners how to count or plan a kickball game as a class reward. Once your students come back inside, everyone will have gotten their wiggles out and be ready to work.

SEL Picture Books

Stories are a great method for teaching children with autism important social emotional learning (SEL) skills. You can read SEL picture books as a class or assign them to your student as independent reading.

Here are a few books about social-emotional skills you can read to your student with autism:

  • No, David! by David Shannon
  • Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Reading Time

Since school can involve so much sensory stimulation, a full day of class can leave students with ASD feeling overwhelmed. Children with autism benefit from quiet breaks throughout the day, so try planning a quiet reading activity as a class to give everyone time to de-stress and work independently.[17] Or if your student with autism is having trouble focusing, ask them if they’d like to spend some time reading in the school library.

Tips for Working with Children on the Autism Spectrum

The more you know about how to support students with autism, the better prepared these children will be for academic success.

Use these five tips and accommodations for students with autism to make sure every child in your classroom feels welcome and supported:

  • Avoid sensory overload in classroom decorations or activities, which can make it tough for students with autism to pay attention [18]
  • Many children with autism have difficulties understanding figurative language. If a student misunderstands a simile or idiom that you use, try to teach them what you really mean [19]
  • Sometimes, students with autism feel confused by open-ended questions.  When possible, try giving your students options if they don’t seem to understand your question [20]
  • Children with autism often have a special interest in a topic or activity–try using what they’re interested in to teach them. If they’re fascinated with dinosaurs, for example, you could use dinosaur figurines to teach them how to add or subtract
  • Don’t assume that a child with autism is intellectually disabled. If you’re not sure how to best support your student, discuss their symptoms with their family or a school psychologist [21]

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]

Iowa Department of Education. Talking to Parents About Autism. Retrieved from educateiowa.gov: http://educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/Parent-Factsheets_April2010_Autism.pdf.[2]

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the symptoms of autism? Retrieved from nichd.nih.gov: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/symptoms.[3]

Baily, A., Couteur, A.L., Gottesman, I., and Bolton, P. Autism as a strongly genetic disorder: evidence from a British twin study. Psychological Medicine, July 2009, 25(1), pp. 63-77.[4]

Landrigan, P.J. What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, April 2010, 22(2), pp. 219-25.[5]

Montes, G., and Halterman, J.S. Characteristics of School-Age Children with Autism. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, October 2006, 27(5), pp. 379-85.[6]

National Autistic Society. Autism facts and history. Retrieved from autism.org.uk: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx.[7]

Mayes, S.D., Gorman, A.A., Hillwig-Garcia, J., and Syed, E. What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, january 2013, 7(1), pp. 109-19.[8]

National Autistic Society. Autism facts and history. Retrieved from autism.org.uk: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx.[9]

Ibid.[10]

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the symptoms of autism? Retrieved from nichd.nih.gov: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/symptoms.[11]

Loomes, R., Hull, L., and Mandy, W.P. What Is the Male-to-Female Ratio in Autism Spectrum Disorder? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, June 2017, 56(6), pp. 466-74.[12]

Bargiela, S., Steward, R., and Mandy, W. The Experiences of Late-diagnosed Women with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Investigation of the Female Autism Phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, October 2016, 46(10), pp. 3281-94.[13]

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the symptoms of autism? Retrieved from nichd.nih.gov: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/symptoms.[14]

Greene, K. Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from scholastic.com: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/teaching-students-autism-spectrum-disorder/.[15]

Healy, S. The effect of physical activity interventions on youth with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis. Periodical from the International Society of Autism Research, 2018, 27(5), pp. 818-33.[16]

Kluth, P. Supporting Students with Autism: 10 Ideas for Inclusive Classrooms. Retrieved from readingrockets.org: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/supporting-students-autism-10-ideas-inclusive-classrooms.[17]

Manolis, L. 6 Tips for Teaching Students with Autism. Retrieved from teachforamerica.org: https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/6-tips-for-teaching-students-with-autism.[18]

Ibid.[19]

Kluth, P. Supporting Students with Autism: 10 Ideas for Inclusive Classrooms. Retrieved from readingrockets.org: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/supporting-students-autism-10-ideas-inclusive-classrooms.[20]

Moreno, S., and O’Neal, C. Tips for Teaching High-Functioning People with Autism. Retrieved from iidc.indiana.edu: https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Tips-for-Teaching-High-Functioning-People-with-Autism.[21]

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