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Students on the Autism Spectrum: Strategies that Can Guarantee Their Academic Success

In an ideal world (which none of us will ever experience), your child’s educational experience would include the strategies listed below, all of which will optimize the potential for academic success – intellectually, emotionally and socially.

Strategies that can guarantee the success of kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) include the following:

1.  In an ideal world, the HFA or AS youngster’s school has an extensive, in-depth knowledge of autism spectrum disorders (e.g., principal, vice principal, dean, teachers, administration staff, etc.). This guarantees that whoever has contact with your youngster in the course of the school day is aware of his or her needs and understands that the disorder is neurobiological in nature – and not a behavioral issue.

So, ask what specific training the staff at your youngster’s school has had, and check that this is updated regularly. This is particularly relevant for your child’s classroom teacher. If no specific training has been undertaken at your youngster’s school, insist that this is rectified promptly.

2.  Check the anti-bullying policy of your youngster’s school. This should be a whole-school policy that has a proven and consistent grievance-address policy, with successful follow-up procedures. The policy needs to tackle the needs of victims and actions of perpetrators alike. 
==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

3.  Hopefully, your youngster’s school recognizes the need for continuous, open communication between home and school. This can be achieved by a daily phone call between special-education staff and parents each day, with relevant information being relayed to your youngster’s teacher. Most parents of kids on the autism spectrum understand that sometimes seemingly harmless incidents in their youngster’s day (e.g., before, during, or after school) can have a huge impact on his or her behavior.

Knowing that all behavior is a form of communication, one can’t possibly hope to understand the message the “special needs” youngster is trying to convey unless one has all the facts. Continual communication gives those caring for the HFA or AS youngster at school and home the “big picture."

4.  It will be very helpful if your youngster’s classroom is aesthetically autism-friendly (e.g., using visual aids, maintaining a low sensory “volume" in the classroom – such as minimizing noise, light, smell, and extremes in temperature).

5.  Kids on the autism spectrum cope best in schools with small class sizes. This option is less a reality these days, when education systems worldwide are struggling to survive with less funding. However, there are many other procedures parents can monitor to make certain their “special needs” youngster is being educated in an optimal setting.

6.  Most children with HFA and AS experience periods of excess energy and will benefit from regular energy “burns" throughout the day. This could be in the form of a brisk walk, a short jog, or a set of star jumps or other callisthenic exercise (e.g., skipping, hopping, etc.). The need to burn excess energy usually occurs about halfway through each classroom session (i.e., morning, middle, and afternoon).

Your youngster’s successful behavior in the classroom can be greatly enhanced by implementing regular energy “burns" into his or her day. If the teacher or assistant isn’t available to supervise this, an alternative is having the youngster run errands or messages for the teacher.

7.  If possible, your youngster’s school has a “safe space" that he or she can go to when stressed, anxious, angry or agitated. This space needs to be sensorily “quiet" with soft furnishings. Accessing this space should never be used as a form of punishment, rather the youngster should be encouraged to remove himself or herself from an escalating situation before overload and meltdown occur – and rewarded for using this strategy.

The youngster shouldn’t be “rushed" to return to the classroom, because this will only increase his or her agitation. All kids (including those on the autism spectrum) strive to be the same as their peers, and this “internal driving force" ensures the HFA or AS youngster will rejoin his or her class as soon as he/she is physically and emotionally able to.

8.  Ideally, the classroom teacher will be mindful of the fact that all social interaction will have a cumulative effect on your “special needs” youngster, which will affect the successful outcome of group activities, seating arrangements, and ‘buddy’ systems.

9.  Wouldn’t it be great if your youngster’s school had a strong Social-Skills program in place that he or she participates in at least once a week for a minimum of 1 ½ hours. This program would incorporate problem-solving and case-specific scenarios, physical activity, group and team work, developing friendship skills, and decoding language and facial expressions.
  • Developing group work skills enables kids on the spectrum to participate more successfully in activities in class and at home. The “mechanics" of group work need to be explained to the HFA or AS child in a step-by-step process for greatest understanding.
  • Discussions about what makes a good friend, what good friends do in various situations, how friends act, what friends say to each other, how they share, how they play together, how they include each other in games, etc., form the basis of teaching friendship skills.
  • Using real-life scenarios of incidents that happen in the playground at school helps kids on the spectrum to transfer their knowledge to their interactions with their peers.
  • Specific skills need to be directly taught about appropriate ways to join a game, co-operating with others, and turn-taking. 
  • Self-recognition by the HFA or AS youngster of his or her need for rigidness and rule-following – and highlighting that not all kids think this way – helps to explain the often confusing nature of the school environment to the “special needs” child.
  • Problem-solving specific scenarios that have occurred in the lives of kids on the spectrum helps them to develop a “bank" of appropriate responses and strategies to use in real-life situations.
  • The language component should aim to assist the youngster to recognize and decode literal or conflicting statements in language (e.g., idioms and oxymorons). It also assists the child in identifying the meanings of facial expressions and body language. This will help him or her to develop the use of more appropriate facial expressions and body language in interactions with peers.
  • The physical activity component will assist the youngster’s co-ordination, fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, vestibular systems imbalance, and physical fitness levels.

Regular access to an all-encompassing Social-Skills program such as this - in a group comprised of both kids on the autism spectrum and their neurotypical peers - provides the HFA or AS youngster with the building blocks of social dexterity for life. It also fosters tolerance and understanding in their neurotypical peers.

This list of school strategies is by no means comprehensive, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it’s meant to list the minimum accommodations every school should make for kids with HFA and AS. It’s a foundation to build on in partnering with your youngster’s school to create an IEP for your youngster that allows him or her to achieve his/her fullest potential.

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

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