Autism and Education

› Autism

You don't have to struggle with teaching students with autism and education in the regular classroom. Specific strategies can make a real difference in reaching these unique children.

Autism is part of the Pervasive Development Disorder, otherwise known as PDD. It is one of the fastest growing behavioral development diagnosis today.

If a child has mild to moderate autism, it is likely he or she will be in the regular classroom for most, if not all, of the school day.

This presents a real problem for teachers as many of us have not had any formal training in how to best reach students with autism.

It is erroneously thought that teachers either already know, or should know, how to teach all types of students. That simply isn't true.

Just like an orthopedic surgeon wouldn't know how to treat a heart patient, educators who are trained for the regular classroom often don't know how to deal with autism and education.

Many classrooms are highly interactive, colorful, have children constantly working together and use a lot of oral language for learning. This can be a "no-win" environment for a student with autism as many individuals with the disability are highly distracted by the noise and perceived chaos.

Changing Student and Teacher Behavior

Autism in the classroom requires specific accommodations to be made, in academics, behavioral and instructional strategies. With correct support, teachers can implement ways of managing the needs of all students (but no doubt, it is very difficult at the best of times).

While nobody would expect a teacher to change everything to fit an autistic child's needs, some accommodations can be made.

Teachers who are structured, have clear expectations and classrooms where they value teaching social skills (not just expecting students to use them) are often the most effective teachers for autistic children.

Many times the first reaction to what is perceived as bad behaviors is to give out consequences. A consequence, at the root level, is a negative. Negative reactions to behaviors most often does not equal a positive change.

But kids who have moderate or mild symptoms of autism can be taught to behave differently, thereby learning positive and important life skills.

Students with autism often are not aware that their behavior isn't appropriate. If they are aware, they often do not have the skills to do anything about it. We have to teach them. This means a change in teacher behavior and reactions is necessary.

Here are strategies that can result in changing not only student behaviors, but also teacher behaviors as well. They also gives us ways to retain our sanity while knowing we are doing what is right and best for the child.

1. Specific behavior contract

Target specific behaviors (one at a time, please!) and include exactly how you will redirect and diffuse the situation. Include immediate rewards and also what would lead to a removal from the room if the behavior cannot be contained. This really works for autism and education in the regular classroom.

One important point to note is that all children deserve to learn, and if a child, even one with autism, is preventing that from happening, then it is right and fair for everyone to have the child removed (perhaps to a sensory room or another quiet place until he or she calms down).

2. Pick your battles

Some behaviors can and should be ignored. Over-reaction and immediately addressing an issue are not always the best course to take. If a behavior isn't hurting others, hurting the child or disrupting the classroom, leave it alone. Just because humming or rocking (for example) is annoying to the teacher, it may be the way a child is coping with a situation.

Letting the child sit off to the side and hum or rock is an effective, sensitive way of allowing this. Later you can use the opportunity to teach the child how doing those things around others can effect them (try a social story).

3. Size, Time and Difficulty

Adjust the amount of work and the time it will take to complete it. I have found that most of my autistic students struggle with the executive functioning of their brains. They struggle to self-regulate time on task behaviors. Then, address the difficulty of the task.

Ask yourself what the actual expected outcome is for an assigned task. It may be that what you are requiring just isn't possible for what we know about autism and education.

4. Participation

Social skills are extraordinarily difficult for students on on the autism spectrum. We want all of our students to be meaningfully engaged in their learning. Provide ways for each child to be included, however small it may be, and to give something back to the group.

Your class will also benefit if you have taken the time at the beginning of the year to instruct students how to work in a group and practice the "jobs" each member has. This addresses the need for structure and keeps it from being a "free-for-all" which can happen during cooperative learning situations.

5. Ask for an aide

I know full well that this isn't possible sometimes. But without asking, you may not ever get one. If a teacher can present the case to the principal/special education supervisor showing how an aide will benefit the child (not the teacher) and provide the necessary support to have further meaningful inclusion, then this wish might be granted, even for part of the day.

The effective teacher will learn how to implement behavioral and academic strategies that can result in a positive classroom experience for all learners.

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