13 Proven Teaching Strategies for Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

by Fenwick
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teaching strategies for learners with autism

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. In most cases, the learning characteristics of students with autism differ from the rest of the children’s needs. But luckily, the right teaching strategies for learners with autism combined with proven methods can keep children with autism on the right track to finishing the academic year strongly, having acquired the desired academic knowledge.

Try these tips, educational accommodations, and resources for students with autism to help them learn concepts that might otherwise be difficult to grasp.

Before Classes sessions. (For the teachers)

  • Develop a friendship with your student by understanding their special interests.
  • Offer positive feedback to the student before critical remarks.
  • Build confidence in your student to interact socially.
  • Understand your student’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Understand the sensory issues that may trigger your student’s meltdowns.

While in class. (For teachers and Homeschooling Parents)

 Integrate Special Interests into Lessons.

Many children with autism have a fixation on certain topics or activities. Take advantage of what they’re passionate about and use it while teaching students with autism to help them focus in class. If a child with autism loves outer space, you could plan a math assignment about counting the planets in our Solar System.

Use Multisensory Learning

Many children with autism are multisensory thinkers and don’t focus as well when assignments only engage one of their senses. Renowned scientist and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin once said, “I used to think adults spoke a different language. I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me.”

For this reason, lessons that engage several senses, like sight, hearing, and touch, can make students with autism more responsive in class. You could, for example, teach children with autism how to read with magnet letters or sing a patriotic song to learn about history.

Use a SMART Goal Challenge

If a student with autism is having difficulty, parents and teachers can sit down with them and pick a SMART goal to work on over the next month or term. SMART goals are an effective way to help children with autism reach their potential, and they are

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound 

Suppose, for example, that your student with autism is having trouble learning to recognize emotions. You could make a goal with them to practice flashcards with emotions on them every day for five minutes and for the student to recognize each card by the end of the month. As long as the SMART goal hits all of the criteria, it can help the student focus on ways to make progress.

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Provide Clear Choices

According to educators in the special education program, children with autism may become overwhelmed when given too many options. Remember this while creating assignments for your students or asking them questions in class. That way, you’re more likely to keep your student with autism focused and comfortable choosing an answer.

Create a Strong Classroom Routine and Schedule.

In an article with Scholastic, educator Kim Greene reminds teachers that students with autism work best with a strong daily structure. She suggests posting your class schedule for every student to see and, if possible, providing visuals and extra transition time to students with autism.

 Keep the learning environment structured.

Children with autism thrive in a structured environment. Establish a routine and keep it as consistent as possible. In an ever-changing world, routine and structure provide great comfort to a child on the autism spectrum. 

Activities are successful when they’re broken into small steps. If children create a craft such as a paper airplane, define when to cut, draw and paste. Make sure children know what to do if they finish ahead of time. 

Typically, children with autism do not use their free time productively; therefore strive to have as little downtime between activities as possible.

Use visuals as much as possible.

A picture speaks a thousand words! Use them whenever you can. Children with autism learn faster and with greater ease when they use visuals. We all respond better to visuals. Look at any page of advertisements and see which ones catch your eye. When verbal instructions require too much concentration, children will tune you out. 

Visual supports maintain a child’s focus and interest.

So what can you use visuals with? Just about anything.  

Are you teaching hygiene? Show pictures of children brushing their teeth or combing their hair.   

Teaching greeting skills? Show pictures of children greeting their friends, bus driver, parents, and teachers.  

Are you explaining an outing like a field trip? Show visuals of what to expect on the trip, such as getting on the bus, arriving at the destination, planning activities, eating a snack, and returning to school. 

Remember to keep explanations simple and short about each picture, or concentration will wane. Give written instructions instead of verbal ones whenever you can. Highlight or underline any text for emphasis.

Reduce distractions

Many people with autism struggle to filter out background noise and visual information. 

Children with autism pay attention to detail. Wall charts and posters can be very distracting. While you or I would stop “seeing the posters” after a while, children on the spectrum will not. Each time they look at it will be like the first time, and it will be impossible for them to ignore it. Try and seat children away from windows and doors. Use storage bins and closets for packing away toys and books. Remember the adage – out of sight, out of mind. 

Noise and smells can be very disturbing to people with autism. Keep the door closed if possible.

Use concrete language

Always keep your language simple and concrete. Get your point across in as few words as possible. Typically, it’s far more effective to say, “Pens down, close your journal, and line up to go outside,” than “It looks so nice outside. Let’s do our science lesson now.

 When finished writing, close your books and line up at the door. We’re going to study plants outdoors today”. If you ask a question or give an instruction and are greeted with a blank stare, reword your sentence. Asking a student what you just said helps clarify that you’ve been understood. 

Avoid using sarcasm. If a student accidentally knocks all your papers on the floor and you say, “Great!” you will be taken literally, and this action might be repeated regularly. Avoid using idioms. “Put your thinking caps on,” “Open your ears,” and “Zip your lips” will leave a student completely mystified and wondering how to do that. Give very clear choices, and try not to leave choices open-ended. 

You’re bound to get a better result by asking, “Do you want to read or draw?” than by asking, “What do you want to do now?”

Establish independence

Teaching students with autism how to be independent is vital to their well-being. While it’s tempting to help someone struggling to close a zipper, it’s a much greater service to teach that person how to do it themselves calmly. People can be slow when learning a new skill until they become proficient.

 However, to help a person progress, we must show them the ropes. While it’s wonderful that your students take direction from you, it’s equally important they learn to respond to peers. If a student asks for a scissor, tell him to ask his peer. Encourage your students to ask each other for help and information. 

By doing so, students learn there are many people they can seek out for help and companionship. Making decisions is equally important, and this begins by teaching students to choose. Offer two choices. Once students can easily decide between two options, introduce a third choice. This method will help children think of various options and make decisions. People with autism may take extra time to process verbal instructions. Allow extra processing time before offering guidance when giving a directive or asking a question.

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Rewards before consequences

We all love being rewarded, and people with autism are no different. Rewards and positive reinforcement are wonderful ways to increase desired behavior.

 Help students clearly understand which behaviors and actions lead to rewards. Let your students pick their reward so they can anticipate receiving it. 

Many reward systems include negative responses; typically, these do not work either. An example of this reward system is where a student begins with a blank sheet of paper. For each good behavior, the student will receive a smiley face. However, if the student performs poorly, he will receive a sad face or have a smiley face taken away. It’s far better to stop providing rewards than to take them away.  

Focusing on negative aspects can often lead to poor results and a de-motivated student. When used correctly, rewards are very powerful and irresistible. Think of all your actions to receive rewards, such as your salary, a good body, and close relationships. There are many wonderful ideas for reward systems.

Teach with lists

Teaching with lists can be used in two ways. One is by setting expectations, and the other is by ordering information. 

Let’s discuss the first method. Teaching with lists sets clear expectations. It defines a beginning, middle, and end. If I ask you to pay attention because we’ll do Calculus, you probably wouldn’t jump for joy and might even protest. However, you’ll likely be a more willing participant if I explain that only five calculus sums exist. I demonstrate this by writing 1 through 5 on the blackboard. As we complete each sum, I check it off on the board, visually and verbally, letting you know how many are left till completion.

The second method of teaching with lists is by ordering information. People on the autism spectrum respond well to order, and lists are no exception. Almost anything can be taught in a list format. Recreate the passage in a list format if a student struggles with reading comprehension.

This presentation is much easier for a student to process. Answering questions about the passage in this format will be easier. 

Similarly, if you’re teaching categories, define clear columns and list the items in each category. While typical people often think in a very abstract format, people on the spectrum have a very organized way of thought. 

Finding ways to work within these parameters can escalate the learning curve.   

Adopt a creative teaching approach.

It helps to be creative when you’re teaching students with autism. People on the spectrum think out of the box, and if you do, too, you will get great results. Throw all your old tactics out of the window and get a new perspective. 

Often, people with autism have very specific interests. Use these interests as motivators. If you’re teaching reading comprehension and students are bored with a story about Miss Mavis, make up your own story about dinosaurs, baseball statistics, or any other topic your students enjoy. Act things out as often as you can. If you’re teaching good behavior, flick your pencil on the floor as you ask your students, “Is it OK to do this?”

Raise your hand as if to ask a question while you ask, “Is it OK to do this?” Another great strategy to use is called “Teaching with questions.”

This method keeps students involved and focused and ensures understanding. As an example, you might say.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

The final goal is for children to be happy and to function as independently as possible. 

Always keep this in mind and pick your battles wisely. Don’t demand eye contact if students have trouble processing visual and auditory information simultaneously. People with autism often have poor attending skills but excellent attendance. Does it matter if a student does one homework page instead of two? What about if a student is more comfortable sitting on his knees than flat on the floor? 

It’s just as important to teach appropriate behavior as it is to self-esteem. By correcting every action a person does, you’re sending a message that they’re not good enough the way they are. When deciding what to correct, ask yourself, “Will correcting this action help this person lead a productive and happy life?”

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Teaching a child with an autism spectrum, either at school or at home, can be both demanding and enjoyable at the same time. There is no secret. Be creative, be exploitative, and don’t follow the written rules. In the long run, you will love the process and will be able to help those angels to love education and be independent. That’s the ultimate goal.

Through the comments section, add some that have worked for you and those you think can inspire others.

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