The Basics of Teaching Young Students on the Autism Spectrum

“What advice would you have regarding the most effective teaching methods for young students on the high end of the autism spectrum? I have two ASD students in my class this year (twin brothers).”

First of all, you need to know that Asperger’s (AS) – also referred to as High-Functioning Autism (HFA) – is an autism “spectrum” disorder (i.e., affected children have significantly different abilities and limitations). Before you can prepare for an AS or HFA child in your classroom, you should develop an understanding of the specific child's needs. Prior to the first day of school, review the child's records and look for notes from previous educators that indicate his abilities. Speak to the child's mom and dad and ask them what they feel their son might need to be successful. Meet with the child on the first day of class to become familiar with him and gather information about his needs.

Let’s go into greater detail about the specifics of teaching students on the autism spectrum:

1. Address the AS/HFA student individually at all times (e.g., he may not realize that an instruction given to the whole class also includes him). Calling the student’s name and saying, “I need you to listen to this because this is something for you to do” can sometimes work. Other times, the student will need to be addressed individually.

2. Allow some access to obsessive behavior as a reward for positive efforts.

3. Allowing the student to avoid certain activities (e.g., sports and games) which he may not understand or like. Also, support the student in open-ended and group tasks.

4. Always keep your language simple and concrete. Get your point across in as few words as possible. Typically, it’s far more effective to say, “Pencils down, close your books, and line up for lunch” rather than, “It’s almost time for lunch. Quickly finish your Math assignment. As soon as you’ve finished, close your books and line up at the door. Then after lunch, we’re going outside to study some plants.”

5. AS and HFA kids commonly become fixated on objects. At times, these fixations can draw the child's attention away from classwork. To avoid problems caused by fixation, educators can use the youngster’s fixations as a motivational tool. Seek to link work to the student’s particular interests. For instance, if the child loves reading picture books about trains, gather a large selection of books that fall into this category, and allow the child to read these books only after he has completed his classwork. The desire to return to his train books will encourage the child to stay focused on the task at hand and move through the necessary activities.

6. AS and HFA children are commonly visual learners. Use images whenever possible to assist the child in understanding material. Pairing vocabulary words or other lesson concepts with diagrams or images gives the youngster a visual reference and allows him to commit the information to memory more easily.

7. Avoid over-stimulation. Minimize distractions and provide access to an individual work area when a task involving concentration is given. Colorful wall displays can be distracting for some AS and HFA students. Others may find noise very difficult to cope with.

8. Avoid the use of idioms (e.g., “put your thinking caps on” … “open your ears” … “zip your lips” …etc.). These will leave an AS/HFA child completely mystified and wondering how to do that.

9. Avoid the use of sarcasm. If the child accidentally knocks all your paperwork on the floor and you say, “That’s just great!” …you will be taken literally, and this action might be repeated on a regular basis.

10. Be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual input can be perceived by the AS/HFA child as too much or too little (e.g., the hum of fluorescent lighting is extremely distracting for most children on the spectrum). Consider environmental changes like removing some of the "visual clutter" from the room or seating changes if the child seems distracted or upset by the classroom environment.

11. Don't take “misbehavior” personally. The high-functioning student is not a manipulative, scheming child who is trying to make life difficult for you. Usually misbehavior is the result of efforts to survive experiences which may be confusing, disorienting, or scary. Recognize that the target for the student’s anger may be unrelated to the source of that anger. AS and HFA children are, by virtue of their disorder, egocentric and have extreme difficulty reading the reactions of others. They are literally incapable of being manipulative.

12. Exploring word-processing, and computer-based learning for literacy.

13. Give fewer choices. For example, if the AS/HFA youngster is asked to pick a color, only give him two to three choices to pick from. The more choices, the more confused the youngster will become.

14. Give very clear choices, and try not to leave choices open-ended. You’ll get a better result by asking, “Do you want to practice writing, or do you want to read a book?” …than by asking “What do you want to do next?”

15. If you ask a question or give an instruction and are greeted with a blank stare, re-word your sentence. Asking the child what you just said helps clarify that you’ve been understood.

16. If your class involves pairing-off or choosing partners, either draw numbers or use some other arbitrary means of pairing. You can also ask an especially kind child if she would agree to choose the AS/HFA peer as a partner. This should be arranged before the pairing is done. The child with AS or HFA is most often the person left with no partners. This is unfortunate since these children could benefit most from having a partner.

17. If the high-functioning child uses repetitive verbal arguments or repetitive verbal questions, try requesting that he write down the question or argumentative statement. Then write down your reply. As the writing continues, the AS/HFA youngster usually begins to calm down and stop the repetitive activity.

18. One of the hallmarks of AS and HFA is the affected child’s general detachment and unwillingness to engage in social behavior. Attempts to force the child to complete cooperative activities will likely fail. Instead offer (but don't require) interactive activities. Pushing the youngster to interact with his fellow students will only cause him to detach even more (and may lead to academic struggles).

19. Many schools practice inclusion, which combines AS and HFA children in the same classroom as “typical” children. The idea is that the child on the autism spectrum learns faster and adapts appropriate social behavior by observing his fellow classmates. Peer-tutoring is a one-to-one teaching method often practiced in inclusion schools. In a structured environment, the “typical” child leads the AS/HFA child through a number of tasks with brief instructions.

20. Protect the AS/HFA student from teasing at free times, and provide his classmates with some awareness of his particular needs.

21. Provide a very clear structure and a set daily routine, including time for play.

22. Provide a warning of any impending change of routine, or switch of activity.

23. Understand that some change in the AS/HFA student’s behavior or attitude may reflect anxiety, which may be triggered by even a minor change to routine.

24.  Teach specific social rules and skills (e.g., turn-taking, social distance).

25. Teach what “finished” means, and help the child to identify when something has finished and something different has started. Take a photo of what you want the finished product to look like and show the child. For example, if you want the room cleaned up, take a picture of how you want it to look some time when it is clean. The child can use this for a reference.

26. Daily routines should remain the same. There should be no surprises for AS and HFA kids. Use pictures for depicting the classroom schedule. By using pictures that represent a particular activity, the youngster is well aware of what is going to be taught next. If everything becomes predictable for the AS/HFA student, he is able to learn and concentrate more.

27. The curriculum should be planned in such a way that it incorporates the “daily living skills” which will help the AS/HFA youngster to work independently as a grown-up, for instance:
  • hobbies according to the interest of the youngster
  • money skills
  • reading skills
  • self-care skills
  • skills related to employment
  • social behavioral skills
  • social skills
  • time management skills
  • writing skills

28. The classroom environment where the AS/HFA youngster is going to be taught should be very plain, calm and quiet. Avoid putting colorful charts and posters on the walls. Lots of colors often distract the youngster, making it difficult to concentrate. Also, select a particular spot for extra activities. For instance, if you have chosen the space near the back of the room for doing art activities, keep it like that and don't change it. By doing this, the moment you ask the youngster to sit in the back, he will know that it is time for art class.

29. Use “task analysis” (i.e., very specific tasks in sequential order).

30. Using various means of presentation (e.g., visual, physical guidance, peer-modeling, and so on).

Educating a youngster on the autism spectrum can be quite challenging. But, with proper planning and patience, anybody – whether a student aide, teacher, school counselor or principal – can face this challenge.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... Organize, organize, organize. As a parent and teacher, I found a chart with the week's homework to write in agenda, daily schedule, competition, group work, everything having its place with binders, pencil boxes (no messy desk), possibly a clock or large timer with count down. Direct language and fair, logical is very important. Don't move the goal post. May not be able to relate one bad behavior with another, so each may need to be explained, then held accountable. Showing progress through percentages. Each kid is different, but once you are able figure what focuses them, they can be great students. Good luck.
•    Anonymous said... ...This is the best, concise Fact Sheet I have found. I used it last year, and plan to this year. Thank you so much for making this available. It can help with anyone in authority that helps with your child. IE, coaches, Pastors, Other Parents, etc. Thanks.
•    Anonymous said... 1. Keep in mind that autism affects every person with it differently. Each of those kids could have very different strengths and weaknesses. 2. That being said, visual schedules, reminders before transitions to new activities, and extra organizational help will probably be beneficial for both. Be literal and direct with directions, and take the time to explain things to them when others aren't. Turns of phrase and colloquialisms can be confusing for people with autism. It may also be beneficial to speak with the parents of the students about any sensory sensativites they may have, and for what they usually do to work around them. (Earplugs for hypersensative hearing, or a textured cusion to help with sitting still in their seat, ect.) Good luck this coming school year.

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