Classroom and Homeschooling Strategies for Students with High-Functioning Autism

There's been an explosive growth in the number of children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) in recent years. Following is a list of some of the common issues that these individuals experience in the classroom and beyond. These characteristics are usually not isolated ones; rather, they appear in varying degrees and amounts:
  • coordination problems with both large and small muscle groups
  • difficulty in following complicated directions or remembering directions for extended periods of time
  • difficulty in working with others in small or large group settings
  • difficulty staying on task for extended periods of time
  • easily confused
  • easily distractible
  • inflexibility of thought; is difficult to persuade otherwise
  • low tolerance level and a high frustration level
  • poor auditory memory—both short term and long term
  • poor concept of time
  • poor handwriting skills
  • spontaneous in expression; often cannot control emotions
  • weak or poor self-esteem

Whether you have a special education class, or just a few students on the autism spectrum, the chances are you could use some help. Below are some crucial points to consider when teaching these “special needs” students:

1. An increase in unusual or difficult behaviors probably indicates an increase in anxiety for the student with HFA. Sometimes anxiety is caused by feeling a loss of control. Many times the anxiety will only be alleviated when the student physically removes herself from the stressful event or situation. If this occurs, a program should be set up to assist the student in re-entering and/or staying in the stressful situation. When this occurs, a "safe-place" or "safe-person" may come in handy.

2. Assume nothing when assessing skills. For example, the child with HFA may be a "math whiz" in Algebra, but not able to make simple change at a cash register. Or, she may have an incredible memory about books she has read, speeches she has heard or sports statistics, but still may not be able to remember to bring a pencil to class. Uneven skills development is a hallmark of HFA.

3. Avoid verbal overload. Use shorter sentences if you perceive that the “special needs” student does not fully understanding you. Although she probably has no hearing problem and may be paying attention, she may have difficulty understanding your main point and identifying important information.

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

4. Be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual input can be perceived by the HFA student as too much or too little. For example, the hum of florescent lighting is extremely distracting for some children on the autism spectrum. Consider environmental changes (e.g., removing "visual clutter" from the room, seating changes, etc.) if the student seems distracted or upset by her classroom environment.

5. Being an effective teacher of “special needs” students requires many tools, most of which are chosen through trial and error. Many resources are available to help you plan lessons, manage classroom environments, and develop high-quality instruction for HFA students, for example:
  • develop and maintain a pool of mentors
  • develop a system that allows for easy and comprehensive data collection to help monitor and adapt lessons
  • evaluate and adapt lessons as necessary
  • gather some “tricks of the trade” from fellow teachers, including those who teach special education
  • keep a list of resources for teaching, lesson plans and professional development
  • monitor and verify student responses to lessons
  • set a professional development plan for yourself and track your goals
  • use a multiple-scenario approach to developing lesson plans
  • use peers to review lesson plans and to develop ideas that might be applicable

6. Behavior management works, but if incorrectly used, it can (a) encourage robot-like behavior, (b) provide only a short term behavior change, or (c) result in some form of aggression. Use positive and chronologically age-appropriate behavior procedures.

7. Do not take misbehavior personally. The HFA student is not a manipulative, scheming child who is trying to make life difficult for you. He is seldom, if ever, capable of being manipulative. Usually misbehavior is the result of efforts to survive experiences which may be confusing, disorienting or frightening. Young people on the spectrum are, by virtue of their disorder, egocentric. Most have extreme difficulty reading the reactions of others.

8. If the HFA student has a short attention span, consider the following:
  • break assignments into smaller pieces to work on in short time periods
  • carry out everyday routines consistently
  • develop a reward system for good behavior, completing work on time and participating in class
  • set clear expectations 
  • share ideas with moms and dads so they can help with homework
  • space breaks between assignments so the child can refocus on tasks
  • use visual and auditory reminders to change from one activity to the next

9. If the HFA student does not seem to be learning a task, break it down into smaller steps or present the task in several different ways (e.g., visually, verbally, and physically).

10. If your class involves pairing off or choosing partners, either draw numbers or use some other arbitrary means of pairing. Alternatively, ask an especially kind student if he or she would agree to choose the child with AS or HFA as a partner before the pairing takes place. The student with HFA is most often the kid left with no partner. This is unfortunate since this youngster could benefit most from having a partner.

11. If your student with HFA uses repetitive verbal arguments and/or repetitive verbal questions, you will need to interrupt what can become a continuing, repetitive litany. Continually responding in a logical manner or arguing back seldom stops this behavior. The subject of the argument or question is not always the subject which has upset the student. More often, she is communicating a feeling of loss of control or uncertainty about someone or something in the environment.

Try requesting that the student write down the question or argumentative statement. Then write down your reply. This usually begins to calm her down and stops the repetitive activity. If that doesn't work, write down her repetitive question or argument and ask her to write down a logical reply (perhaps one she thinks you would make). This distracts from the escalating verbal aspect of the situation and may give the student a more socially acceptable way of expressing frustration or anxiety. Another alternative is role-playing the repetitive argument or question with you taking her part and having her answer you as she thinks you might.

12. Kids with HFA have problems with abstract and conceptual thinking. Some may eventually acquire abstract skills, but others never will. When abstract concepts must be used, use visual cues (e.g., drawings or written words) to augment the abstract idea. Avoid asking vague questions like, "Why did you do that?" Instead, say, "I did not like it when you slammed your book down when I said it was time for gym. Next time, put the book down gently and tell me you are angry. Were you showing me that you did not want to go to gym, or that you did not want to stop reading?" Avoid asking essay-type questions. Be as concrete as possible in all your interactions with this “special needs” student.

13. Students on the autism spectrum have trouble with organizational skills, regardless of their intelligence and/or age. Even a "straight A" student with HFA who has a photographic memory can be incapable of remembering to bring a pencil to class or of remembering a deadline for an assignment. In such cases, assistance should be provided in the least restrictive way possible. Strategies could include having the student put a picture of a pencil on the cover of her notebook or maintaining a list of assignments to be completed at home.

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

Always praise the student when she remembers something she has previously forgotten. Never denigrate or "harp" at her when she fails. A lecture on the subject will not only NOT help, it will often make the problem worse. The student may begin to believe she can’t remember to do or bring these things. Students on the spectrum seem to have either the neatest or the messiest desks or lockers in the school. The one with the messiest desk will need your help in frequent cleanups of the desk or locker so that she can find things. Remember that she is probably not making a conscious choice to be messy. She is most likely incapable of this organizational task without specific training. Attempt to train her in organizational skills using small, specific steps.

14. Prepare the HFA student for all environmental and/or changes in routine (e.g., assembly, substitute teacher, rescheduling, etc.) Use a written or visual schedule to prepare her for change.

15. Remember that facial expressions and other social cues may not work. Most children with AS and HFA have difficulty reading facial expressions and interpreting “body language.”

16. Since these “special needs” students experience various communication difficulties, do not rely on them to relay important messages to their mother or father about school events, assignments, school rules, etc. (unless you try it on an experimental basis with follow-up, or unless you are already certain that the student has mastered this skill). Even sending home a note for the child’s parent may not work. The student may not remember to deliver the note or may lose it before reaching home. Phone calls to moms and dads work best until the skill can be developed. Frequent and accurate communication between the teacher and parent is very important.

17. Use and interpret speech literally. Until you know the capabilities of the HFA student, you should avoid:
  • sarcasm (e.g., saying, "Great!" after the student has just spilled a bottle of ketchup on the table)
  • nicknames
  • idioms (e.g., save your breath, jump the gun, second thoughts)
  • double meanings (most jokes have double meanings)
  • "cute" names (e.g., Pal, Buddy, Wise Guy)

While each student with HFA is different, there are standard methods that can serve both the “special needs” child and the educator. A movement is emerging in education called "neurodiversity," which suggests that teachers view their “special needs” students in terms of "diversity" rather than "disability." By embracing this more positive viewpoint and implementing techniques that build on strengths, teachers can help ensure that their HFA students achieve success both in the classroom and out in the real world.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
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