Creating an Effective Learning Environment for ASD Students: Tips for Special Education Teachers

Many special education teachers are encountering students with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) for the first time – and have expressed some anxiety about this. So in this post, we will discuss a few ideas and techniques that will help facilitate an effective learning environment for these “special needs” students.

The first step would be to get acquainted with some of the associated traits. AS or HFA students may exhibit many of the characteristics listed below. These are usually not isolated ones; rather, they appear in varying degrees and amounts in most children on the autism spectrum:
  • spontaneous in expression
  • often can’t control emotions
  • find it difficult, if not impossible, to stay on task for extended periods of time if not interested in the subject matter
  • low tolerance level
  • high frustration level
  • poor concept of time
  • weak or poor self-esteem
  • coordination problems with both large and small muscle groups
  • difficulty in following complicated directions
  • difficulty remembering directions for extended periods of time
  • inflexibility of thought 
  • poor auditory memory (both short-term and long-term)
  • poor handwriting skills
  • difficulty in working with others in small or large group settings
  • easily confused
  • easily distracted
  • difficulty attending to relevant stimuli 
  • expressive language difficulties 
  • language comprehension difficulties 
  • organizational difficulties 
  • preference for familiar routines and consistency 
  • resistance to change 
  • sensory processing difficulties 
  • social relations difficulties

Special education teachers use varied strategies to help promote learning. While each student with AS and HFA is different, there are standard methods that can be employed. Some of the most common of these are individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and working in small groups. If, for example, an AS or HFA child needs special accommodations or modifications to take a test, educators can provide the appropriate assistance (e.g., extending the time needed to take the test, or reading the questions aloud).

The terms accommodations and modifications do not mean the same thing. Sometimes teachers get confused about what it means to have an “accommodation” and what it means to have a “modification.”

An accommodation is “a change that helps the child overcome - or work around - the deficit.” Allowing a child who has trouble writing to give her answers orally is an example of an accommodation. This child is still expected to know the same material and answer the same questions as fully as the other kids, but she doesn’t have to write her answers to show that she knows the information.

A modification means “a change in what is being taught to - or expected from - the child.” Making an assignment easier so the child is not doing the same level of work as the other kids is an example of a modification.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergersand High-Functioning Autism

In a nutshell, special education involves adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction. Accommodations and modifications are most often made in the following areas:
  • Instruction (e.g., using a student/peer tutor, reducing the reading level, reducing the difficulty of assignments, etc.)
  • Materials (e.g., giving copies of your lecture notes, providing audiotaped lectures or books, etc.)
  • Scheduling (e.g., breaking up testing over several days, giving the child extra time to complete assignments or tests, etc.)
  • Setting (e.g., having the student work one-on-one with you, working in a small group, etc.)
  • Student response (e.g., using a word processor for written work, allowing answers to be given orally or dictated)

Below is a list of helpful tips related to special education, as well as suggestions for accommodations and modifications for the AS and HFA student:

1. Color code items. For example, put some red tape on a math text book along with red tape on the math note book. Color-coding items helps the AS or HFA youngster with organization.

2. Consult other educators and administrators when you have difficulty, or don’t know how to work on a certain skill or goal. You don’t constantly have to reinvent the wheel when you teach children with IEPs. Teaching children with special needs can be overwhelming, but with help from other staff members and a positive attitude, it can be one of the most rewarding jobs in education.

3. Create a weekly progress note to send home. These progress notes can be very simple with a blank for an accomplishment the child made, a goal to continue working on, and any special comment or news about the child. The mother and father will also appreciate quick phone calls when their children achieve a goal that they have been struggling with.

4. Develop lesson plans based on your youngsters’ IEPs. If you have a resource room, then you may have individual lesson plans for each of your “special needs” children. For example, if you have 8 children on your case load, then you may have 8 different math plans or 8 different reading lessons. This can be complicated and hard to organize. Make sure to use your paraprofessionals to help you teach your children and follow their IEPs.

5. Get rid of clutter! If your classroom is cluttered, this can be very distracting for AS and HFA children.

6. Give ongoing feedback.

7. Give repetition and clarification regularly.

8. If you are a regular classroom teacher with an AS or HFA child in your class, then your lesson plan for that child may look more like a modification of a lesson or assignment (e.g., if one of the IEP goals is for the child to stay in his seat for 5 minutes without getting up, then you will work on this goal when you assign a math worksheet or during writing workshop). It helps to make notes in your plan book when you are working on a certain IEP goal.

9. Keep instructions and directions “chunked.” Offer one step at a time, and don't overload the child with too many pieces of information at once.

10. Keep lessons concrete. Use visual and concrete materials as much as possible.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergersand High-Functioning Autism

11. Larger size font is sometimes helpful.

12. Let the AS or HFA youngster deliver oral responses instead of written where appropriate to demonstrate understanding of concept.

13. Make parent communication a weekly goal for positive and constructive messages. Moms and dads of AS and HFA children often are tired of hearing negative things about their kids. It’s important to communicate with them about all aspects of their youngster’s progress and behavior.

14. Make sure there are visual clues around the room to help.

15. Make use of Graphic Organizers.

16. Observe AS and HFA children carefully, and keep detailed notes. Your note system may look different than other educators' systems, but you have to find one that works for you. You may use note cards, labeled with each child's name, or you may use one note card for each subject and record notes about all children on the same card during math or reading class. Some educators prefer to use sticky labels. They write one note per label about a youngster. When class is over, they transfer their labels to the student folders and have detailed notes with the date of each observance. It’s extremely important to keep notes about children with AS and HFA so you can update their IEPs with correct information.

17. Pay close attention to lighting. Sometimes preferential lighting can make the world of difference.

18. Read your youngsters’ IEPs carefully and take note of the goals that they should work on throughout the quarter. Many children with AS and HFA have several different goals they are working on in multiple areas, so you will probably have to check IEPs often or have a certain system for referring to what each child is working on.

19. Think critically about seating arrangements. Seat the youngster away from distractions whenever possible.

20. Try “ability grouping” (i.e., have a few peers that can support the AS or HFA child experiencing difficulties).

21. Use assistive technology when available.

In addition, consider offering the following:
  • a “chill-out” area (i.e., a quiet location to enable the child to calm down and relax)
  • a buddy, and let the buddy know what his or her role is (i.e., supportive)
  • a study carrel or alternate place to work for specific tasks
  • a tracking sheet of expected assignments for the week or day 
  • auditory supports to keep the child from having too much text to read 
  • close proximity to the teacher
  • extra time for the processing of information
  • headphones to remove extraneous noises
  • organization tips (let moms and dads know about the organization tips they can use to support their children at home)
  • photocopied notes to avoid having the children copying from the board or chart paper
  • reminders on the desk (e.g., charts, number lines, vocabulary lists, etc.)
  • scribing - or a peer for scribing - when necessary
  • speech-to-text software applications
  • time extensions as necessary
  • time management tips and skills (e.g., have sticky notes on the child's desk to remind the child of how much time he or she has to complete tasks)

Be selective when determining the accommodations that will best help the “special needs” child. If the accommodations don't work after a specified period of time, try something else. Remember, the IEP is a working document, and its success will depend on how closely the contents are implemented, monitored and revised to meet the child's needs.

Rarely are there specific lesson plans for special education. Educators can take existing lesson plans and provide accommodations and modifications to enable the AS or HFA child to have optimum success. Below is a list of reflective questions to ask yourself as a special education teacher. This may seem like a lot of questions to ask yourself to ensure that all children have maximized learning opportunities, but once you get into the habit of this type of reflection as you plan each lesson, you will soon be an expert at ensuring that the inclusional classroom operates effectively:
  • Are the instructional materials selected with all of the children in mind?
  • Are the instructional materials you select conducive to meeting the needs of the AS or HFA youngster?
  • Can they see, hear or touch the instructional materials to maximize learning? 
  • Do the children have an element in choice for the learning activities? 
  • Do the children understand the vocabulary necessary for the specific concept you are going to teach? 
  • Do they have a longer time line?
  • Do you have alternate means of assessment for children with AS and HFA (e.g., word processors, oral or taped feedback)?
  • Do you need to teach the child specific learning skills for the lesson (e.g., how to stay on task, how to keep organized, how to get help when stuck, etc.)?
  • Does the child have a peer that will help?
  • Does the youngster have reduced quantities of work?
  • Does what the children do extend or lead them to new learning?  
  • Does your lesson focus completely on the content?
  • Have you addressed the multiple learning styles? 
  • Have you built in time for a break or change in activity?
  • Have you maximized assistive technology where appropriate? 
  • Have you provided checklists, graphic organizers, or/and outlines? 
  • How will you ensure that these children are understanding the lesson material?
  • How will you introduce the new vocabulary to these children?
  • How will your overview engage them?
  • If you are using overheads, are there extra copies for children who need to have it repeated? 
  • Is there a need to focus first on the vocabulary prior to starting the lesson? 
  • What are your visuals, and are they appropriate for all?
  • What other hands-on instructional materials can you use to ensure that these children will understand learning concepts? 
  • What strategies are in place to help re-focus the youngster, continue to build self-esteem, and prevent him or her from being overwhelmed?
  • What type of review will be necessary? 
  • What will ensure that these children are engaged? 
  • What will you use to demonstrate or simulate the learning concept? 
  • What will your overview look like?

 ==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergersand High-Functioning Autism

Here is a summary of techniques to help you with the “inclusional classroom,” which will assist in meeting the needs of your special education children:
  • AS and HFA children have agendas which I regularly have them - and myself - refer to.
  • Clarifications and reminders are given regularly as needed.
  • Extra assistance is provided when needed through a peer or myself.
  • Home/school communication is in place for those children requiring it.
  • I allow additional “wait time” for my AS and HFA children.
  • I have a special carrel or private location for test-taking and or seat-work for those requiring “freedom of distractions.” 
  • I have eliminated as much clutter and can and keep distractions to a minimum.
  • I have procedures that are well understood by the children to keep noise levels at an acceptable level. 
  • I never begin instructions until I have all my students’ undivided attention.
  • I never present instructions orally alone. I always provide graphic organizers, written or graphical instructions too.
  • I provide my AS and HFA children with regular, ongoing feedback – and always promote their self-esteem.
  • My AS and HFA children are aware of my cueing and prompting system, which helps them stay on task.
  • My AS and HFA children are within close proximity to me or my assistant.
  • My classroom expectations are clearly understood – as are my consequences for inappropriate behaviors.
  • Praise for “catching them doing it right” occurs regularly.
  • Use of behavior contracts to target specific behaviors is in place.
  • Work is organized into workable “chunks.”

Although there is a range of interventions designed for children on the autism spectrum, there is no one intervention or approach proven effective for EVERY student. To gain the most from any intervention or teaching technique requires a careful review of the parent's vision for their son or daughter, the child’s ability to communicate, how he or she prefers to communicate, and the child’s cognitive ability, learning style, adaptive behavior and independent daily living skills. 

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

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