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Tips for Teaching Autistic Children In Grades K-5: How to Effectively Interact, Communicate & More |®

Tips for Teaching Autistic Children In Grades K-5: How to Effectively Interact, Communicate & More

“Teachers often worry that they don’t have the skills necessary to best help students on the spectrum reach their full potential,” says Heidi Long, a fifth-grade teacher at The Gillispie School in La Jolla, CA. “They feel under-prepared to do their best work with these students.”

To help ease such concerns, we asked autism experts and experienced educators for their insights on teaching autistic children in the classsroom. This information is a primer. Use it to prepare for discussions with parents, special ed teachers and others.

Work with Parents

When you discover that a child on the spectrum is joining your class, reach out to his or her parents. “For any student, and especially for students on the spectrum, parents are an invaluable resource,” Long says. “They are the experts on their child, what works and doesn't work, and what drives their child to succeed. I always ask parents to do a lot of talking about their child during our parent conferences. It helps me know the children better, which helps me work with them far more effectively.”

And remember, one approach will not be right for all children. “Work cooperatively with students and parents to set, plan for and achieve goals that focus on academics, social, emotional development and life skills,” says Kami Cothrun, founder and executive director of Pieceful Solutions, which operates K–12 schools for students with autism spectrum disorders in Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert, AZ. These goals are often included in an individualized education program.

Understand Interaction and Communication

“Because students with autism likely have difficulty with social interaction, many teachers assume the students like to be alone,” says Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services for Autism Speaks. This often keeps educators from interacting much with students on the spectrum, and that’s a mistake. “The majority of students with autism want to be accepted and included; they just need to be taught social skills in an open and supportive environment. It’s crucial to look for and understand the best ways to communicate with the student so he or she feels understood and accepted. If he or she feels unable to express him- or herself, this could result in challenging behaviors.”

Leverage Differentiated Instruction

“The challenge with our population is that their restricted interests, hyper-focus, and routine- and ritual-based characteristics often interfere with the needs of all learners,” Cothrun explains. “A student will want a lesson to be taught the way he can do it and the way he ‘thinks’ it should be done. A student will become concerned or agitated that a peer is learning the same concept in a different way, with different materials, etc.” This is less disruptive when differentiated instruction is in place. “The use of differentiated learning is not only a great teaching tool to meet the diverse learning needs of our students, but it also teaches patience and understanding. Students learn how to expand their understanding of others’ strengths, needs and viewpoints.”

Focus on Refocusing

Lots of youngsters become disengaged during the course of a school day. Cothrun says you can bring a student back to the assignment by aligning it with their interests. “For example, if you have a student who loves dinosaurs but is having difficulty doing his math assignment, bring dinosaurs into the assignment. Put dinosaurs on the page, count dinosaurs, etc.” Don’t forget to offer meaningful praise, rewards and incentives when your charges are engaged to build confidence and encourage more focused learning.

Incorporate visual structure throughout the day to help autistic students stay on track. “One example is using a visual schedule that reminds the child what activities they’ve completed and what is coming next,” says Lauren Turner-Brown, assistant director, TEACCH Autism Program and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “When the child becomes distracted, a simple reminder to check the schedule can help direct them back to the activity.”

Ease Agitation

The agitation that comes with frustration can derail any student, but you may need a different approach to calm students who are on the spectrum. “Decrease how much language you use when you try to help them,” Turner-Brown urges. “We often want to ‘talk’ someone into calming down. But understanding language can be a big challenge for children on the autism spectrum. When they’re upset, their comprehension is probably even more limited. Figuring out how to support the child with simple language and visual supports, which may be easier to understand, often helps.”

Inventory Strengths and Needs

Build a welcoming and inclusive classroom community by emphasizing strengths and appreciating the differences when teaching autistic children. “Helping children understand their strengths is one strategy to promote positive self-esteem,” Turner-Brown explains. “Teaching all children in a classroom that everyone has areas of strength and areas of need is one strategy to promote more successful inclusion of children with autism.

Join students in listing their own strengths and what they can and want to be better at. This establishes that everyone — teachers included — are good at some things and need to improve at others. It also helps students find peers who share interests.

Create a Community

We all learn and behave better when we feel safe, so create an atmosphere of support, acceptance and empathy in your classroom. “Keep your eyes out for bullying, which, unfortunately, is far too common among individuals with autism,” Goring says. “Pair the student with peers who are positive role models and allow times for students to work in small groups. Helping young students understand and accept a classmate with autism will have a great and positive impact on the students and the classroom as a whole.”

In the end, however, the most effective advice is simple: “The best tip is to know your students,” Long asserts. “If you know them well, you'll know what works for each one.” As you may have noticed, this advice will help you with any child. Deploy these tips for better engagement and achievement from all your students.

Additional Resources

The Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit includes information and resources for all members of a school community, including specific sections for educators with information on autism, and tips and tools for teachers.

In addition, TEACCH offers a variety of trainings for educators, including weeklong classroom trainings, short workshops and an annual professional conference.

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she's a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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