Any teacher will tell you how important it is to know and adapt to the needs of their student. When a student has diagnosed learning difficulties, it becomes even more important that those needs are met. This can be a challenge when the diagnosis is something as complex as autism. However, there are approaches that are very likely to improve an autistic child’s experience of learning. Below are five tips that I’ve found helpful when teaching children with autism.
For children with autism, the world can be loud, unpredictable and even frightening. It’s important to be clear about what is going to happen and what is expected of them. This can be difficult if the child has communication issues.
Pictures can be very helpful for children who struggle with verbal communication. PECS is a popular non-verbal form of communication. You can find PECS resources here:
Other children might benefit from being regularly reminded of what is coming next, e.g. “you’ve written that beautifully, well done! Ok, we’re doing to read these two pages and then answer these questions” and “fantastic reading! Now let’s answer these questions and then we’re going to read these pages.” Other children might need this information in fewer words. For instance, “we’re going to read, then do this.” The child might also have their own word for something like their book or drawing a picture. They might benefit from having this word used alongside or instead of the more commonly used word.
The student will almost certainly need more information than most children about what they will be doing. At the same time, it’s important not to overwhelm them with too much information at once. Having a wall chart or some kind of written routine is very helpful for some children. Regular verbalreminders can also work well.
It’s very easy to behave differently when you’re tried, when you have a lot of work to get through or when your student is having a bad day. Try to resist this temptation. Children with autism generally thrive in predictable environments. Experiencing something they didn’t expect can make them anxious and agitated. As well as being unpleasant for them and not what you’re aiming for as a teacher, this could cause them to become unresponsive, ultimately making the class even more difficult for both of you.
Be clear on what the rules are. Try to follow a similar structure for every lesson. Maybe play a specific game in every class. The more consistency you can introduce into your classes, the more confident and relaxed your student will be.
Let them self-soothe
People with autism are often very good at regulating their own emotions when they’re allowed to do so. The terms self-soothing and stimming cover a range of behaviours, from high pitched noises to rocking back and forth. These behaviours can be considered strange or even unpleasant by others. If you, as the teacher, still have a lot of work to get through, you might feel pressured into coercing the student into continuing with the lesson. But it’s important that their process is not interrupted. The child wants to be calm and ready to learn just as much as you want them to, and they know that this is how they will achieve that. Trust them and be patient.
It might also be helpful to plan times during the lesson for the child to decompress in a way that suits them. This might mean jumping up and down ten times every few minutes, taking two minutes out to colour a picture a few times during class, or having ten minutes at the beginning or end of the class to do something they enjoy.
Get to know their learning style
Children with autism can fall anywhere on the academic spectrum. They also have a range of learning styles. Autism will often co-exist with sensory issues and can present in similar ways to conditions like anxiety or ADHD. This impacts on how the child learns and how well they adapt to the school environment. Autism and it’s correlating conditions don’t often impact on how aware the child is of how they’re doing academically and socially. Often these children know if they’re not doing well, but they don’t know why. It can be very easy for them to fall into destructive behaviour patterns and/or, more commonly, develop chronically low self-esteem.
To avoid this, it’s worth adapting to the child’s specific learning style as much as possible.
If possible, adapting the lesson’s goals might also be helpful. Answering one comprehension question well, and being praised for that, is much better than becoming frustrated by five.
Join their inner world
Like all children, autistic children often have a rich inner world. They have passions and ideas to explore. They have their likes, dislikes and preferred routines. Observing the child and showing an interest in what they’re doing will build trust and give you valuable insights into what they need from you. As much as possible, try to bring the lesson into their world. This will make them feel more comfortable and more able to understand the lesson material.
I’ve found that these things create a good foundation for an effective approach when teaching children with autism. But this is not an exhaustive list. Which approaches and techniques have you found to be helpful? What is your best tip for supporting an autistic child?