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Crucial "Tip-Sheet" for Teachers of High-Functioning Autistic Students

“Would there happen to be a sort of ‘tip-sheet’ that I could send my son’s teacher, something concise but informative? He has high-functioning autism, and I get the impression that the teacher views him as just another ‘typical’ student, which I can tell you he’s not! He does perform well in many areas, but in others, he is struggling, and it’s in those areas that he gets accused of have behavior problems, but I think in most cases it’s part of his autistic characteristics.”

Feel free to share the following general points with your son’s teacher, which include classroom strategies specifically for students on the autism spectrum:

1.  Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s dislike change, especially when it’s unexpected. Prepare the child for all changes in routine (e.g., assembly, substitute teacher, rescheduling, etc.). Ideally, use a visual schedule to prepare him for change.

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

3.  Kids 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 he can find things. Please remember that he is probably not making a conscious choice to be messy. He is most likely incapable of this organizational task without specific training.

4.  These “special needs” young people 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 (e.g., "Why did you do that?"). Also, avoid asking essay-type questions. Be as concrete as possible in all your interactions with the HFA child.

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

5.  If your high-functioning student uses repetitive verbal arguments or questions, you should 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 that has upset him. More often, the child is communicating a feeling of loss of control or uncertainty about someone or something in the environment.

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

6.  If your class involves pairing-off or choosing partners, either draw numbers or use some other arbitrary means of pairing. As an alternative, you could ask an especially kind student if he or she would agree to choose the HFA child as a partner before the pairing takes place. The child on the spectrum is most often the one left with no partner.

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

8.  Do not take misbehavior personally. The HFA student is not usually a manipulative, scheming child who is trying to make life difficult for teachers. Most often, misbehavior is the result of efforts to survive experiences that may be confusing, disorienting or scary. Kids on the spectrum are, by virtue of their disability, egocentric. Also, most of them have extreme difficulty reading the reactions of others.

9.   Be aware that normal levels of auditory and visual input can be perceived by the HFA student as too much or too little (e.g., the hum of florescent lighting may be extremely distracting). Consider environmental changes (e.g., removing visual clutter from the room, seating changes if the child seems distracted, etc.).

10.  Avoid verbal overload. Be clear. Use shorter sentences if you perceive that the child does not fully understanding you. Although he probably has no hearing problem and may be paying attention, he may have difficulty understanding your main point and identifying important information.
More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

11.  Uneven skills-development is a hallmark of HFA. Assume nothing when assessing skills (e.g., the student may be a math whiz in Algebra, but not able to make simple change at a cash register; he may have an incredible memory about books he has read, speeches he has heard, or sports statistics, but still may not be able to remember to bring a pencil to class).

12.  An increase in unusual or difficult behaviors probably indicates an increase in anxiety for the HFA student. Sometimes anxiety is caused by feeling a loss of control. Many times, the stress will only be alleviated when the child physically removes himself from the stressful event or situation. If this occurs, a program can 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.

13.  Use and interpret speech literally. Until you know the capabilities of the HFA child, try to avoid the following:
  • sarcasm (e.g., saying, "Great!" after he 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)

14.  Since children on the autism spectrum experience various communication difficulties, it’s best not to rely on them to relay important messages to their parents about school events, assignments, school rules, etc. (unless you try it on an experimental basis with follow-up or you are already certain that the HFA student has mastered this skill).

Even sending home a note for his mom or dad may not work. The child may not remember to deliver the note, or may lose it before reaching home. Phone calls to the parent work best until the skill can be developed. Frequent and accurate communication between the teacher and parent is very important.

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

Help for the Emotionally Fragile Student on the Autism Spectrum

“My high functioning autistic child struggles emotionally while at school. His self-esteem is low, and he is often very self-critical and unable to tolerate making mistakes. Also, he is easily overwhelmed when things are not as his rather rigid views dictate they should be. Any suggestion for his teachers in this regard?”

Kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s have the intelligence to participate in regular education, but they often do not have the emotional resources to cope with the demands of the classroom. Many are easily stressed due to their inflexibility. Temper outbursts are common in response to anxiety and frustration. Also, interacting with classmates and coping with the ordinary demands of schoolwork can produce a significant amount of self-doubt (e.g., the child starts to believe that he or she is “dumb”).

These “special needs” students are so easily overwhelmed by environmental stressors, and have such profound impairment in the ability to form interpersonal relationships, that it is no wonder they give the impression of emotional instability. Most children on the autism spectrum are aware of how different they are and the enormous effort they have to make to participate in a world where few concessions are made and where they are expected to conform to the “typical” way of doing things.

With these traits in mind, here are a few suggestions for your son’s teachers:

1.  Teachers must be alert to changes in behavior that may indicate frustration and discouragement (e.g., greater levels of disorganization, inattentiveness, isolation, anxiety, etc.). Do not accept the HFA youngster's assessment in these cases that he or she is "OK." Also, do not expect the youngster to acknowledge that he or she is sad, confused, angry, etc. In the same way, the child has difficulty perceiving the feelings of others.

2.  Teach the student how to cope when stress overwhelms him or her. Help the youngster write a list of very concrete steps that can be followed when he or she becomes upset, for example:
  • Ask to see the special education teacher
  • Breathe deeply three times
  • Count the fingers on your right hand slowly three times

Include a ritualized behavior that the youngster finds comforting on the list. Write these steps on a card that is placed in his or her pocket so that they are always readily available.

3.  Prevent outbursts by offering a high level of consistency. Prepare the HFA child for changes in daily routine in order to lower stress. Children on the autism spectrum frequently become fearful, angry and upset in the face of forced or unexpected changes.

4.  Teachers can play a vital role in helping students on the autism spectrum learn to negotiate the world around them. Because they are frequently unable to express their fears and anxieties, it is up to significant adults to make it worthwhile for them to leave their safe inner fantasy lives for the uncertainties of the external world.

5.  Students who are very fragile emotionally may need placement in a highly structured special education classroom that can offer individualized academic program. These “special needs” kids require a learning environment in which they see themselves as competent and productive. Therefore, keeping them in the mainstream, where they can’t grasp concepts or complete assignments, serves only to lower their self-esteem, increase their withdrawal, and set the stage for tantrums and meltdowns.

6.  Adults who work with these youngsters in schools must provide the external structure, organization, and stability that they lack. Using creative teaching strategies is critical – not only to facilitate academic success, but also to help them feel less alienated from their peer-group and less overwhelmed by the ordinary demands of schoolwork.

7.  In some situations, a personal aide can be assigned to the youngster rather than special education placement. The aide can offer affective support, structure and consistent feedback.

8.  Kids on the spectrum should receive academic assistance as soon as difficulties in a particular area are noted. They are quickly overwhelmed and react much more severely to failure than do “typical” kids.

9.  For the student who fears making mistakes, be sure to articulate that mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process and should be expected - and accepted. Praise the child for small, independent steps regardless of outcome. Gently brush aside his or her anxiety about not getting the answer by refocusing attention on the problem at hand. Ask the child to build on what he or she already knows about the problem, and ask for one possible approach to the problem.

10.  Affect as reflected in the teacher's voice should be kept to a minimum. Be calm, predictable, and matter-of-fact in interactions with the HFA student, while clearly indicating compassion and patience. These students need very concrete instructions. Teachers who don’t understand that it is necessary to teach students on the spectrum seemingly obvious things may come to feel impatient and irritated. 

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==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

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==> 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

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


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