What should teachers consider when working with students with autism spectrum disorder?
Page 6: Instructional Considerations
Just as the development of the IEP or IFSP is a group effort involving several multidisciplinary team members, so too is the instruction of children and students with ASD a shared responsibility, much of which occurs in inclusive settings. A large number of children and students with ASD receive at least some instruction in typical early childhood settings or in general education classrooms. More specifically:
- Although not all young children participate in early childhood programs (e.g., preschool, childcare), about half of all children ages three to five with ASD participate in a regular early childhood program.
- Approximately 91% of students with ASD ages 6–21 receive all or some portion of their instruction in a general education classroom. The remaining 9%, many of whom have severe symptoms, receive services in separate schools, residential facilities, homebound/hospitals, correctional facilities, and private schools.
For these reasons, it is important for personnel in early childhood settings and general education classrooms to be aware of strategies to increase the likelihood of the child or student’s success. As such, it might be beneficial for them to seek out the expertise of the multidisciplinary team members to help implement these strategies, such as those briefly described below.
When they understand a young child or student’s interests, teachers increase their chances of making meaningful progress with that child or student. Teachers can use this information to teach concepts, as well as to motivate, reinforce, and build rapport with a student. For example, if a teacher knows that a child is especially interested in certain cartoon characters, she can use a picture of those characters to motivate the child to identify colors. Likewise, a teacher can incorporate a teenager’s interest in the solar system to teach concepts related to speed, distance, or trajectory. Additionally, when a teacher takes time to build rapport with a child or student (e.g., enjoying time together in a playful or fun activity), the child or student is then more interested in working with that teacher and more likely to behave appropriately.
In addition to instruction in traditional areas such as literacy and mathematics, most students with ASD benefit from instruction in ASD-specific skills or areas, such as those listed below. It is important to begin this type of instruction at a young age.
- Social interaction
- Executive functions
- Emotional regulation
- Play and leisure skills
- Self-care skills
- Observational learning skills (e.g., imitation)
- Independence and self-advocacy
The mental processes that control and coordinate activities related to learning, including processing information, retaining and recalling information, organizing materials and time, and using effective learning and study strategies.
The ability to control one’s state or behavior in order to achieve individual goals, handle everyday stress, and deal with various social situations appropriately.
The ability to adapt to routine changes and adjust to the unexpected. Students who have ASD often are viewed as rigid and inflexible. These students might struggle with:
- Transitions during the day
- Changes in schedules or routines
- Changes in staff
- Generating new ways to approach a problem
- Multiple interpretations of rules
- Managing emotions
- Responding to unfamiliar peers or adults
- Differing opinions
Independence and Self-Advocacy
A child or student with ASD needs to learn how to make decisions, take care of himself and his possessions, and tell others what supports he requires. It is important for these skills to be embedded in the curriculum as early as possible. For example, a preschool student can be taught to make decisions about which activities he wants to complete and in what order he wants to complete them. As students get older, self-advocacy may include telling teachers or employers what types of supports (e.g., written schedules) they need to be successful.
Teachers should use evidenced-based practices—strategies that have been proven to work through research. Additionally, they should collect data to track the child or student’s performance across time. The multidisciplinary team needs to analyze these data to determine whether the child or student is making adequate progress. If not, the members of the team should determine the types of instructional changes that should be implemented to improve the child or student’s performance.
Although children or students with ASD will not require individualized supports and services for every curricular area, those they need should be listed on the student’s IFSP or IEP along with the name of the person responsible for implementing or providing them. These supports and services can range from simple to intensive. Increased staffing in a classroom (e.g., adding a paraprofessional) might be an example of an intensive service. On the other hand, a modified schedule that allows a student with sensory issues to change classes before the bell rings to avoid crowded and noisy hallways is an example of a simple support.
Typically, children and students with ASD like predictability. Maintaining a structured environment can help them feel less anxious, increase their availability for learning, and improve their cooperation throughout the school day. A structured environment can include:
- A predictable schedule – Activities occur at the same time across days or weeks.
- Predictable routines – Activities follow a consistent pattern.
- Predictable locations – Classroom objects are kept in consistent places.
- Minimal distractions – Environmental stimuli to which a child or student might adversely react are reduced or removed (e.g., clutter, noise level).
- A consistent physical environment – Minimal changes are made to the room arrangement.
Teachers can use strategies and supports to help students understand the environment. For example, teachers can use visual cues first-then picture board; visual schedules using objects, pictures, or words) to help students predict what activity will come next. These strategies and supports need to be age- and developmentally appropriate, explicitly taught, and, to the greatest extent possible, support the student’s independent functioning.
first-then picture board
A type of simple schedule that visually presents what the child or student needs to do now (first) and what he or she will do next (then). First-then boards can be created using pictures, objects, or text. Digital first-then picture board apps are also available.
Source: The Picture Communication Symbols © 1981-2015 by Mayer-Johnson LLC. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Used with permission.
Some behaviors that children and students with ASD display are challenging for teachers. Research has shown that a functional approach is most effective in addressing these behaviors. A functional approach is one in which the function of the behavior (e.g., to get attention, avoidance) is determined through observations and analysis. Once the function of the behavior is determined, personnel can teach the child or student appropriate alternative behaviors that serve the same function. For example, if a child typically has a tantrum to avoid difficult or non-preferred activities, he can learn to hand the teacher a picture to request a break from the activity. This offers him a more appropriate way to communicate his need.
To learn more about functional behavioral assessments, view the following IRIS Module:
Because challenges with social communication and social interaction are major characteristics of ASD, providing opportunities for children and students to interact with their peers is key in developing relationships. Teachers can create opportunities for children or students with ASD to socialize with typically developing peers in a number of ways, such as:
- Creating group activities (and making sure each member, including the child or student with ASD, has a role)
- Assigning a peer buddy or partner
- Creating social opportunities that relate to the child or student’s interest
To learn more about each of the strategies listed above, listen to the following IRIS Interview:
Listen as Wendy Stone discusses a few other tips for teachers working with students with ASD. Next, listen as Adrienne Golden talks about how to engage children with ASD in the classroom. Finally, listen as Ilene Schwartz highlights the importance of teachers using data-based decision making when working with students with ASD.
Wendy Stone, PhD
Professor, Educational Psychology
Director of the Research in Early Autism
Detection and Intervention Lab
University of Washington
Susan Gray School
Early Childhood Lead Teacher
Ilene Schwartz, PhD
Professor, Special Education
Director, Haring Center for Research
and Training in Inclusive Education
University of Washington
Transcript: Wendy Stone, PhD
Teachers who are unfamiliar with autism or maybe know just one child with autism or maybe have learned about autism from news shows or TV might be a bit wary or even frightened at the thought of the unknown. I think that’s not uncommon, and it’s not unexpected, but I do think it’s so important for teachers to realize a couple of things. One is that there are a lot of stereotypes about autism that don’t apply to the whole range of children, and there are still many misconceptions that abound about what autism is and what it isn’t. I think the most important thing probably is understanding that each child is so very different from every other child, and that once you understand the characteristics of autism that underlie some of the behaviors that you see it’s it’s easier to figure out what to do about that and how to work with children when you understand what is causing the behaviors. I would encourage teachers to find out as much as they can about the child including their strengths, not just the things that they have trouble doing, but the strengths that they might have that can be used productively to help them learn and possibly to help other children learn in the classroom, as well. For example, they may have very good attention to detail. They may have specific areas of knowledge that are boundless. It’s really important to build upon those strengths.
Talk to the parents about what approaches they’ve found. What the child likes to do. What might be a good reward. What the child’s language level is. How the child communicates. Do they use a picture system? Do they use nonverbal? Do they use words? Find out what other people who’ve worked with the child have done, and what’s been successful and learn about autism. Learn about how the core areas of impairment affect the child’s behavior so that you know how to just step right in, and when you see a behavior it won’t be a mystery to you. It will be, oh, that might be because it’s too loud in here. Or the child might be acting this way because he just doesn’t understand that it hurts other people when they’re pinched. Or he may not have understood those directions because they were kind of long and wordy. Just to be able to think about the underlying characteristics of autism that may contribute to behaviors that may be challenging.
It’s so important for teachers to understand the unique characteristics of autism and how they affect learning. Children with autism may not be as interested in social reinforcement or praise or doing what’s expected of them or completing course work or staying on task. However, there are many other types of rewards that these children might enjoy. At the same time, children may not respond or seem to be complying, and it would be a mistake to attribute this to willfully being disobedient, as opposed to really maybe not understanding what the expectations are, having difficulty understanding language and also having difficulty expressing their needs in a productive, communicative way.
Transcript: Adrienne Golden, Early Childhood Teacher
I think when you first think of autism, and you think of a child coming in your classroom, you might be concerned about high levels of challenging behavior. One of the biggest things I think about is how am I going to engage that child in the classroom, because we know that they’re not typically very engaged with other peers, and early childhood kids learn a lot from playing with their peers. We know that kids with autism usually have lower play skills. So you are, what are we going to do if they’re not engaging with other kids and they’re not communicating with other kids in the way that typical kids are? That’s a big concern, with how am I going to set up the classroom and the activities in a way that will get them engaged, interacting, interested so that then we can teach through play, and how am I going to have to set up my classroom for them to be successful and provide that routine in structure that they enjoy, while also allowing them to engage with the toys and the other kids, like all the other kids are doing? I think my biggest concern is when I figure this kid out, how am I going to get them to engage, how am I kind of crack their little nut and get into their little world and engage with them. I think all kids with autism are so different. And I think that’s what I enjoy the most about working with kids with autism. They are so different. It is like a puzzle. And I just love figuring out what’s going to work for you today, what’s going to work with you tomorrow?
Transcript: Ilene Schwartz, PhD
So the process of data-based decision making is to collect information about children’s performance. We often now call that progress monitoring. What we’re looking at is to say, “Is the child learning what I’m trying to teach them?” If not, the information from the data you have collected tell you that you need to make a change in your teaching plan. So what we encourage teachers to do is to look at the data on a weekly basis and determine is the child making progress? If so, continue as is. Is the child not making progress at the speed that you want to see them make progress? And if they’re not then you need to make a change to the instructional program, and that may mean changing how you’re providing instruction. It may mean that you need to provide more instruction. You may need to make the task easier. You may need to find a better reinforcer. The child may not be motivated to participate in the instructional activity. One of the tips we always give teachers, if the data are not showing the child’s making progress, is to make sure that the instructional program is being delivered as written. We want to make sure that the instruction is being provided with fidelity, that we’re providing the instruction correctly, and that we’re providing the instruction with enough intensity to make sure that the child is learning.
For Your Information
Children and students with ASD often have difficulty generalizing skills across environments and people. Once a child or student begins learning new skills at school, it is a great idea to try to generalize these skills to the home. For example, if a pre-school child is learning colors and shapes, the teacher can ask his or her parent to incorporate these concepts in the home environment. Research has shown that for children with special needs, parent participation leads to greater generalization and maintenance of skills.
Listen as parents Nancy Rosenberg, Becky, and Andy describe some of the things they would like teachers to know about children with ASD.
Nancy Rosenberg, PhD
Parent of a young adult with ASD
Director of Distance Learning
University of Washington
Parent of a child with ASD
Parent of a child with ASD
Transcript: Nancy Rosenberg, PhD
The first tip I would give teachers is forget about the other kids with autism that you had in your class, because there’s a good chance that this child is going to be nothing like them. That adage that if you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism. I think that makes it really hard for teachers and our educational system, and especially now that they’ve gotten rid of terms like Asperger’s, and it’s just all autism spectrum disorder. It’s just such a diverse group that it’s hard to come up with strategies that are going to work with all of the different kids, whether they’re an IQ of 120 and just have social deficit versus somebody who has language impairment, who has cognitive impairment and has the autistic traits. What teachers often struggle with more than anything is oral language, talking to the child, won’t be your primary tool for communicating with the child with autism. With typically developing kids, oral language often is our medium for trying to get them to understand things, and often kids with autism it’s not. When the child with autism clearly isn’t understanding—whether it’s an academic task, or a behavioral expectation, or a schedule change—resist the impulse to use more language when you’re not getting through to the child. Have a sense of humor. If we can laugh at the crazy and often undesirable things that a child with autism does, we’re going to enjoy things and be much more effective than if we can’t laugh at them. And to try, try, try not to take this child’s behavior personally, not to feel that it’s directed at you if they’re having undesirable behaviors, and also to try not to attribute it personally to them. Keep reminding yourself that their behaviors aren’t them, that their behaviors are their autism. That doesn’t mean this is a bad person or a bad child. It’s the autistic traits or characteristics that are causing the behavior, not them personally.
Transcript: Becky, Parent
The first thing that comes to my mind is that I would want them to be curious about Finn. He doesn’t always present like a typical child with autism, and I think part of the challenge is there’s not a particular child with autism. There’s a spectrum, and Finn is on the spectrum, and from one day to the next it might look a little bit different. I would hope that the teacher would look for ways to authentically include Finn in the classroom, that it’s not just him doing extra worksheets or sitting in the corner doing something else, but there are ways to really integrate him in a meaningful capacity with typically developing peers.
I think having an aide has worked well for him through elementary school. Up until this year, in terms of social interaction, Finn has a desire to be social but doesn’t always know how to make that happen. And so an aide has helped facilitate some of that social interaction, so I think that’s been good. He also has had some pull-out resource time to help with his reading and math skills where you do see that big lag. As parents, we’ve been very supportive of that because he still is in the classroom for some of that delivery of services, and that’s been helpful. And then as technology has developed over the past five years, he has started using an iPad for PEC symbols and for his daily schedule and for doing social stories. So after the weekend he would come in, in theory with a social story of what we have done, so he could share that in circle time with his friends. And it has a prerecorded voice on it, but he’s still selecting the pictures, and that was a great way for him to feel a part of the classroom. I would also add for the new teacher or the new special ed person, for the new assistant, that if they have questions that it’s okay to ask. Because this has been a learning process for all of us, and as the parents we may not have the answers, but we will certainly do all of the research to get an answer or to get the resources that he or she may need to be successful in their job.
Transcript: Andy, Parent
We all like to put people in categories and buckets so that we can understand the world around us, but autistic children are very unique. Very few of them are alike in all of their behaviors. And so every child really does need a very specialized approach, and every child has unique gifts and strengths that can be exploited and unique challenges that need to be negotiated. It would be a temptation, I think, of somebody who might say, “Oh, well, I’ve had an autistic child before in class, so I know what that’s like. I know how to handle that.” And they’re probably right to about fifty percent. But half of that is right, but the other half is probably going to be way different. One tip that I would have for a teacher with Finn would be for them to have an attitude and an approach of curiosity as it relates to trying to unlock what’s inside of Finn. He is a gifted human being. He has skills and abilities that are in there. But a great teacher would be somebody that would really pursue diligently a way to get that out of him. And it takes extra work, and it takes extra time, and it’s probably not the easiest thing for a teacher that’s got eighteen other kids in the class. I appreciate that that’s difficult. But the great teachers that we have had and the great experiences that we have had have been with teachers who have been very curious about him and have wanted to find solutions to get those things out of him.
For Your Information
The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (NPDC) has a wealth of materials about working with children and students with ASD. Many of their resources cover the topics above in greater depth. An extension of NPDC, the Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules (AFIRM) Website offers modules about planning for, using, and monitoring evidence-based practices with learners with ASD from birth to twenty-two years of age.