Tips for Teachers: Understanding Your “Difficult” Students with ASD Level 1

"My daughter was diagnosed with high functioning autism recently. What critical details can I provide to her 5th grade teachers to help them understand her cognitive, emotional and social characteristics? (I am a teacher as well, 7th grade, different school). She apparently is not doing so well in the current situation."

Most children with ASD or High Functioning Autism (HFA) are impaired socially. They often do not detect social clues and are frequently unaware when they irritate others. Since they miss these social clues, they miss the lesson associated with the experience. As a result, they tend to repeat the irritating behavior since they are unaware of its effects.

Many of the traits of HFA are "masked" by average to above average IQ scores. This often results in the student being misunderstood by teachers. They assume the child is capable of more than is being produced. This lack of understanding may result in teachers treating the "special needs" student just like a "typical" student.

Another misunderstanding is the relationship between the classwork and social education. For instance, an HFA youngster may find a social setting overwhelming and distracting. If kids are placed in a small group to work together on a project, this could become a social setting to the HFA child. As a result, the child may be over-stimulated by the social aspect to the point where he or she can’t focus on the project itself.
The typical school environment is often very stressful for HFA students, for example: (a) enduring “socialization hell” in the form of recess, lunch, gym, and the bus ride to and from school; (b) regular noises from alarms, bells, schoolmates, band practice, and crowded hallways; (c) periods of tightly structured time alternating with periods lacking any structure; (d) numerous daily transitions with a few surprises thrown in here and there; and (e) an overwhelming number of peers to contend with. Little wonder why HFA students have the proverbial “meltdown” on occasion. All of these stressors should be taken into consideration when evaluating what types of teaching techniques to use with these youngsters.

Taking the above challenges into account (and there are many more than those listed), let’s now look at some specific techniques to employ with students on the high-functioning end of autism:

1. Although HFA kids have difficulty figuring out most principles of social interaction, they are usually pretty good at understanding “cause-and-effect” principles. This suggests that, although these young people may be unaware of another person’s desires or emotions, they usually are aware of theirs. This can be useful in education if the teacher takes the time to figure out what is pleasing to the youngster. Once this pleasure has been discovered, the teacher can request the desired behavior and reinforce the behavior with the object or activity of desire.

2. HFA children, like all others, change teachers each year. Additionally, there is the requirement of moving from elementary to middle school, and then on to high school. Thus, it’s important to have a "transition-planning meeting" scheduled prior to such transitions. This meeting allows the previous teacher to inform the incoming teacher on successful techniques, as well as provide general education on the traits of AS and HFA. The child should be orientated as well. Allowing the child extra time to become familiar with a new environment will prevent unnecessary stress during transitional periods.

3. HFA students are visual learners. Thus, a visual schedule of the day's activities, a visual depiction of the type and length of the work expected, and instructions presented visually in addition to verbally can be very helpful. Visual instructions and schedules help these children to feel more secure and less stressed.

4. Because HFA children have difficulty learning in a traditional manner, mild to severe depression can occur. These children have the capability to acquire information, but their performance is hindered. A depressed child will undoubtedly have some academic struggles. For children on the spectrum, depression is just one more barrier to education. Thus, teachers should be on the lookout for signs of depression in these “special needs” students and make a referral to the school counselor when needed.

5. Imagine nails scraping on a chalk board. It sends a chill down your spine – right?! To a youngster with autism, every day sounds can have a similar affect. Thus, it’s important for the teacher to take inventory to determine sounds difficult for the child to hear. Consider allowing him or her to listen to soft music with headsets during class times when there is a lot of distracting noise. Earplugs are another solution.

6. In middle and high school, passing periods are a desirable time of socializing for most “typical” children. For the HFA child, passing periods are a social zoo. Thus, allowing the child to leave 5 minutes early in order to avoid the overwhelming social interaction is recommended. Without such an option, the child may spend most of the next class trying to recover from the distressing sensory overload experienced during the previous passing period.

7. Many students with HFA are impulsive.  You may have a child who loves class participation, but has trouble sensing when he or she should stop talking and give someone else a chance.  Thus, work out a signal that only the two of you know (e.g., tapping your chin with your index finger, standing in front of that child's desk, etc.) that cue him or her that it's time to stop talking.   If you have an HFA child who is especially eager to participate, you may want to routinely call on that child first so he or she isn't jumping out of the chair in an eagerness to contribute.

8. Minimizing the stress and worry HFA children face is critical to education. Frequent changes in routines make it difficult for these kids to focus on the schoolwork due to preoccupation concerning what will come next in the day. Teachers should try to minimize transitions and insure the environment is predictable. When there are changes in the routine, these children should be prepped ahead of time in order to help them avoid excessive anxiety.

9. Oftentimes, “teacher frustration” can develop from a lack of understanding that an HFA child is unable to generalize the skills that he or she learns. For instance, the teacher may give instructions on “how to address me as your teacher” (e.g., raising your hand first, saying “Mrs. Johnson” rather than “Hey teacher”). Typically, this skill would then be generalized to any adult in a position of authority. However, the child with autism is likely to only apply the skill to the teacher initially used as the target of respect in the learning process. The child will probably not apply this behavior to the principal, school counselor, school police officer, etc. Thus, teachers may need to repeat a particular “social skills lesson” several times so that all the possible scenarios are covered (i.e., addressing the teacher, addressing the principal, addressing the dean, and so on).

The inability to generalize can also pose a problem in classroom assignments. For example, giving instructions to open an arithmetic book to a certain page does not communicate to additionally begin solving the problems. Thus, teachers should verbally give all the steps necessary to complete an assignment rather than assuming the AS or HFA child will automatically know what to do next.
==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with High-Functioning Autism

10. There is another critical aspect of learning that is not obvious to HFA children. This aspect of learning includes the basic “how to’s” of living. These are things that “typical” children seem to just know. The social know-how that tells most kids what is inappropriate conversation material may be foreign to an autistic child. Thus, teachers instructing children struggling in this area should make use of social stories and role-playing. Social stories and role-playing give examples of proper actions in given public settings.

Teachers need to understand what the disorder is – and how it hinders affected children. Without a clear understanding of this disorder, teachers will not understand the "special needs" child. Actions that are clearly a part of the disorder can be confused with behavioral issues and dealt with inappropriately. Also, teachers must educate themselves on effective teaching techniques for students on the spectrum. 

The basic principles that prove effective with “typical” children work for those with HFA. Every “special needs” youngster needs to be evaluated, and have a plan established addressing areas of weakness – as well as acknowledging areas of strength. Perhaps most importantly, teachers should “believe in” the child and expect him or her to reach appropriate grade level requirements.

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

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

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