Students on the Autism Spectrum: Crucial Tips for Teachers

Tips for Teachers with Students on the Autism Spectrum

Social Aspects—

Students with ASD level 1, or High Functioning Autism (HFA) may fall anywhere in the continuum between withdrawn and active but odd. These children want to communicate with their peers - but may lack the ability to do so. They do not understand what people are feeling or thinking and have difficulty empathizing with them.

When asked to imagine themselves in a particular situation, they experience great difficulty and may not be able to role-play. There is a lack of understanding of body language and social conventions, and they have great difficulty in making and sustaining friendships.

Because of this, HFA children miss out on many aspects of teenage culture. For example, they may have no knowledge of pop music, football, fashion etc. Therefore, when such topics are used to stimulate interest in examination questions, they can be at a disadvantage.

These children have little appreciation of personal space and often get too close to people. This, combined with inappropriate body language, can be misinterpreted by others as threatening behavior.

They find it difficult to work in pairs, to be part of a team, or to participate normally in classroom discussions -- and need direct teaching. Because of their desire for friendship, HFA children can be very vulnerable and easily persuaded to do things without being aware of the consequences.

Disruptive behavior (e.g., self-directed injury, tantrums and aggression) is thought to be the result of communication difficulties, but the teacher in the classroom may be concerned for the safety of other students and restrict the use of certain equipment in practical lessons and participation in outside activities. Hence, the student with HFA may have had a narrower educational experience than his or her peers.

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

Communication Difficulties—

Most of the social difficulties described are the result of communication problems. Syntax and grammar are rarely a problem, but there is often a non-productive, pedantic, literal use and understanding of language. Speech may be flat and robot-like, and possibly accompanied by distracting gestures (e.g., body swaying or grimacing).

HFA children try to understand what the words mean rather than what the speaker means - and may be confused by idioms and metaphors.

A question such as "Can you tell me the names of  _____" is likely to be answered with a 'yes' or 'no'.

These children tend to find the written word easier to understand than the spoken. Some may be able to read mechanically beyond the level of their understanding (hyperlexia). Their writing shows a rigidity of thought, and they often produce learned patterns of phrasing in answers to examination questions.

Orally, HFA children can be very boring, because they spell out everything in great detail and because of their preoccupation with a particular interest or topic. They can't build on what others say, have poor topic maintenance, and are unlikely to make appropriate eye contact.


It is not uncommon for these kids to have had delayed milestones in their motor development - and for clumsiness to persist into adulthood. Both fine and gross motor skills are involved, thus their performance in sports will be affected.

The arrangement of written work is often poor with deeply marked crossing-out. Handwriting varies from being very small and almost illegible to being large with poorly formed letters which overlap the lines.

Stress and the Environment—

Kids on the autism spectrum are perceived to be intolerant of individuals as well as the environment. They become very anxious in unstructured settings and where people are moving at random. Many may not be able to tolerate people close to them. Noise, whether it is sudden or it comes from general background activity, can cause acute stress, fear and even panic - and at the very least the student will be distracted and unable to concentrate. Factors causing stress are very individual, although all find alterations to routines very disturbing and have difficulty in making choices.

Some respond to stress by antisocial behavior. Repeated swearing is not uncommon, and others may have to remove themselves physically from the situation. A quiet environment, free from distractions and where rules are followed rigidly can do much to help these "special needs" students to concentrate.

Carrying an object can give them a sense of security. The nature of this can seem quite bizarre to others (e.g. a AAA battery). But without it, HFA children may be unable to settle or concentrate. Some derive comfort from repeating a set ritual of some kind - and it can be long and complex.

It goes without saying that the ritual, however time-consuming, will have to be carried out in an examination situation, and the comfort object allowed to be present if the student is to be able to cope with the stress of taking the examination.

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

Intellectual Functioning—

Verbal ability tends to be stronger than non-verbal, and this results in uneven attainment across the breadth of the curriculum. This is reflected in examination results and also within subject papers. The student may be able to do exceptionally well recalling facts or applying well practiced methods - but may score poorly or not at all when asked to imagine a situation or to comment on the nuances of a fictional text.

Some show areas of exceptional ability. But these are usually confined to one subject and may be in a limited area of that subject. But, the young person displays an insight and a knowledge way beyond others in their age group. Often this is linked to their main interest or obsession.

Obsessional Interests—

Obsessional interests tend to dominate the thinking and much of the life of many students on the spectrum. Sometimes these change abruptly - but many persist for years and perhaps for life. These young people become very knowledgeable about their interest and go to extreme lengths to pursue it. In an examination, whether written or oral, the student will tend to see everything in terms of this interest and bring it in to all answers. It will tend to take over, and the student will wander off the point of the question and not know when to stop.

Special Arrangements for Examinations—

1. The examination room: There may be a request for the student to be supervised separately because:
  • it would give the student a less stressful setting where he could concentrate without what for him are overwhelming distractions
  • the student can move around if this is helpful in relieving undue stress
  • the student would not distract others by her ritualistic behavior or by extraneous movements and noises which are beyond her control

There may be a request that a comfort object is allowed in the examination room.

2. Extra time: A request for extra time should be made to examining boards, because students on the autism spectrum find it hard working on a time limit. While working on a time limit may cause excessive stress to some HFA students, it could be counterproductive to others who would feel that they had to keep writing even if they had completed their answers.

3. Presentation of examination papers: There may be a request that the question paper is presented on plain paper and in one color, because the student finds a range of colors confusing.

4. Use of language in question papers: There may be a request that carrier language of questions is modified to be as clear as possible. This would be similar to the request made for congenitally deaf students who also need clear, unambiguous instructions and an avoidance of abstract ideas, except when understanding such ideas is part of the assessment.

5. Prompting of the student when it is time to move on to the next question: This may be requested because of the student's obsessional behavior, which may cause him or her to keep writing on a particular topic, totally unaware of the passage of time. The student may have been used to being moved on in class, and such prompting is allowed in examination conditions.

6. Word-processing and handwriting: If the student's writing is illegible or if motor control is so impaired that handwriting is difficult or excessively slow, word-processing may be the usual method of written communication in class and may be requested for examinations. Alternatively, there may be a request that the student be exempt from the assessment for handwriting, etc.

7. Request that the answer papers are scrutinized at some point by someone aware that the student has HFA and who is familiar with the disorder. There could be a number of reasons for this including:
  • the possible use of bad language or other expletives which may be triggered by a distraction, or because excessive feelings have been aroused in response to the question. Using bad language in this way is beyond the control of the student and is not an attempt to be rude to the examiner
  • the language used and the obsessional content of the answer
  • the general appearance of the paper, including diagrams and labeling, etc.

8. Oral tests: It would be very difficult for anyone to conduct an oral test with a student with HFA without being apprised of the situation and of the particular behavior and difficulties of the student. Indeed, examiners might feel threatened by the student unless they were aware of the disorder. Examiners should be made aware that the student may display some of the following behavior:
  • avoiding eye contact, and possibly writhing, twisting, swaying and walking around during the interview
  • echoing questions, even to the extent of copying the voice and accent (this is not rudeness, but a lack of understanding)
  • failing to understand abstract ideas and taking jokes, exaggerations and metaphors literally
  • getting too close to the examiner
  • the student will not have had the usual day-to-day experience of life (this particularly applies to relationships and doing things with the peer group, for example, he might not be able to respond to a question about what a student did with his friends over the weekend because he would not perceive himself as having any friends)
  • making inappropriate, over-familiar or over-formal remarks
  • not understanding body language
  • stilted speech, unless the topic is the obsessional interest, in which case it will be hard to stop or divert the conversation to another subject

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

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

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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