Autism in the Classroom

School is right around the corner. By now, many gen ed teachers have experienced a student with autism in their classrooms. I would imagine if you are a gen ed teacher and you had a student with autism that the experience was eye-opening and you learned a lot from it. But before you pat yourself on the back because you now know how to manage and educate a student with autism, you need to realize that not all students with autism are alike. In fact, students with autism can be very different from each other. Which is why you need to know as much about your new student with autism as you possibly can before he or she steps foot in your classroom. Learn everything you can about him/her and prepare, prepare, prepare. Even given all the knowledge and preparation you can have regarding your new student, it will still be difficult.

I’ve known teachers(self-contained and gen ed) who refuse to ask those important questions about their new student with autism because they want to give that new student a clean slate and an opportunity to start the school year without any judgement or pre-conceived ideas on the part of the teacher.  That thinking is not only wrong, but will likely cause huge problems for the student and the teacher. It’s essential that you learn as much as you can about your new student and have your room and yourself as ready as possible before your student with autism arrives.

Let’s start first with the questions you need to ask of last year’s teacher and the educational team. And do not forget to talk to the parents, because your student’s parents know their child better than anyone. The first step is usually to meet with your student’s educational team(speech/language pathologist, social worker, psychologist, OT, PT, special services teacher and parents). His educational team will discuss goals and supports he will need. Pay attention to what is discussed and don’t assume that this team will take care of the educational needs of the student and release you from any responsibilities.  That also goes for any personal aide your student might have.  You are the teacher and ultimately responsible for your student’s education.

Questions you should ask:

  • What are his receptive and expressive language skills, and how well does he communicate? Does he have a communication system other than verbal language?(if so, learn all you can about it fast)
  • How best does he learn and what are his educational levels?
  • What modifications will he need? Are there any you can provide?
  • Does he have sensory sensitivities/sensory integration problems?
  • Any food issues? Sleep issues?(many kids with autism are poor sleepers and have a limited repertoire of food they will eat.  These issues can effect their ability to learn)
  • How is his peer interaction? Does he have friends in your class? You need to think of ways to connect him with buddies in your classroom.  Most kids with autism have few, if any, friends.
  • Does he have allergies or any medical conditions? medications? Is he diagnosed with anything other than autism?(such as Fragile X, seizures, Tourettes, OCD, learning disabilities, etc) Most kids with ASD have other conditions which accompany their autism.
  • What triggers his anxiety? What causes any possible meltdowns?
  • What are his preferences and needs? i.e: seat location? alone or with others at a table? lighting? noise level? visual aids? structure and routine? transitions? breaks? toys/objects for self-stim?
  • What to do you do when there’s a meltdown-what’s the behavior management plan?

All these questions are likely to have complex answers, which you as the teacher will need to know well.  Remember, you need to create a safe and comfortable environment that will allow your student with autism to focus and learn.

As odd as it seems, the more structured and rigid your classroom schedule and the more specific rules you have, the better your student with autism will manage in your class. Kids with autism need structure and routine.  They need to know what to expect and what will likely happen.  They need easily understood rules and consequences.  They need you(the teacher) to be predictable and consistent.  Here are things you can do to help structure your classroom and help your student anticipate and cope:

  • Post a short list of simple and specific classroom rules(not too many and not too vague) and explain the rules to him.
  • Post the class schedule of activities for each day.
  • Post a calendar of special events(field trips, assemblies, etc.)
  • Always give a visual heads-up(if possible) if there is going to be a change of any kind(i.e: substitute teacher, visitor to class, re-arranging desks, no math today, no art class, no recess, a fire drill, etc.) never surprise a student with autism. You will learn quickly that they don’t like change, and if you surprise them there will likely be behavior problems.
  • Use pictures, if necessary, for all the information you post.
  • Find ways to help your student stay organized, on-task and motivated. This may take some creativity on your part.
  • Individualize for the needs of your student and be sure that whatever you make and post will be helpful and understood by your student.
  • Don’t assume anything.
  • Be consistent

Behavior problems are probably the biggest concern classroom teachers would have regarding a student with autism. Learn to recognize when your student is becoming anxious and upset, and try to prevent a meltdown before it hits.  Sometimes distraction, assurance or a quick break will prevent a meltdown.  But sometimes meltdowns still happen.

When there’s a meltdown:

  • Remain calm and speak quietly(this is often harder than you think-we all become alarmed and may panic in the moment)
  • Make sure your student and everyone else is safe(meltdowns can become aggressive)
  • Don’t bombard your student with lots of talking and questions.  It’s hard for someone with autism to process language when they are melting down.
  • Sometimes it’s best to say nothing during a meltdown, but when you have to talk to your student be calm and allow for plenty of processing  time.
  • Things you can say to your student while he is melting down may include: “I know you’re upset, but we’ll work through this and figure out what to do”, “What can I do to help you?”, “I’ll stay here with you until you feel calmer/better”
  • Have a plan for getting staff help, if necessary. During a meltdown a student with autism may need to be restrained by someone who is qualified to do it.
  • Have a place your student can go to self-calm and decompress.
  • As a processing and preventive tool, have a team member create Social Stories to address anxiety, transitions, meltdowns and self-calming.
  • You may need to create a reward system, as well as a task completion and problem solving aides such as:  First This, Then That(for task completion) or If___, Then_____ for behavior and cause/effect understanding. Also, create a picture system to allow your student to express feelings/emotions. Enlist the SLP and social worker to help create these for you.
  • After a meltdown, when your student is calm again, figure out what triggered his upset behavior. Ask the student questions or give him choices.  Don’t assume the meltdown is about task avoidance.  Many things can trigger a meltdown.
  • At some point you and your student need to create step-by-step self-calming strategies that he can use the next time he feels upset. Self-calming is key; everyone with autism needs to learn this.

I wish the best to all you teachers, support staff, students and parents as we start a new school year. Stay positive! It will be a great year for everyone…especially all those students with ASD.


Autism and Therapy

For those of you who are not so familiar with autism, or need an update or reminder about this condition, here is a little review of what we mean by autism. First of all, autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that even though individuals with autism share certain characteristics that define all of them with autism, those at the high end of the spectrum tend to have better cognitive capability, better language skills, better academic skills and a better ability to function independently.  These are the individuals who are often called high functioning or identified as having Asperger’s.

Those individuals at the low end of the spectrum typically have poor language skills, and some are even non-verbal. These individuals are often characterized as being low functioning, and appear to have poor cognitive abilities. They usually have poor academic skills, and can’t function independently, even as adults.

Although behavior is often problematic with those on the autism spectrum, there is a very direct correlation between poor language/communication capabilities and out of control behavior.  I learned early on that behavior IS communication, and if it’s your only means to communicate(i.e meltdowns and tantrums to express yourself), then sometimes it will be hard to control. And this is not to say that only low-functioning individuals on the spectrum have meltdowns, because most people with autism have them, usually more frequently when they are young and lack the language to express themselves.  As individuals on the spectrum get older and are able to understand what triggers their meltdowns and then learn to control them, their meltdowns are less intense and less frequent. Learning to anticipate and self-calm is key.

I’ve worked for years with students who were considered low functioning with autism, and the first thing they all need is an effective means to communicate. That often means an individualized communication system(AAC-augmentative and alternative communication) such as a picture exchange system, picture boards and voice out-put devices. I’ll get into all of that later.

Getting back to the spectrum and autistic characteristics, individuals with autism can exhibit a number of conditions: struggles with language and communication, social interaction difficulties, poor problem-solving and ability to predict, poor flexibility for changes, severe anxiety and depression, severe sensory sensitivities, seizure disorders, digestive issues and allergies, behavior disorders, sleep disorders, ADD/ADHD, OCD, learning disability, fine and gross motor difficulties; just to name a few. You can also have autism with other neurological conditions and syndromes. I’ve worked with kids who have autism and Down Syndrome, as well as Fragile X Syndrome. Autism is not a stand alone condition, and when you consider that autism is a neurological disorder, that’s not surprising.

So, given all that, and especially considering the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder, there is no way one approach to therapy will work for everyone with autism.  In fact, I find I need to individualize therapy approaches all the time and even change therapy approaches with an individual as they grow and change. When I talk later about therapy approaches and materials, I will explain the autism characteristics and capabilities each approach is best suited for. A good therapy approach is all about using their strengths to help them learn. And believe me, they all have individual strengths we can work with.

I typically dislike talking about autism definitions and characteristics, but I feel it’s important to have a brief perspective of autism before approaching therapy for this incredibly variable condition.

My next blog will talk about kids with autism and going back to school: what teachers need to know!

All my best to all you parents, therapists, teachers and individuals with autism! And let me know if you have any questions. Hang in there!